Olivia Joules and the Overactive Imagination by Helen Fielding

Clichés speared with a hatpin
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The Independent Culture

If I have ever seen you on the train with a cerise-covered book you got free with a magazine, and given you a patronising smile before hunkering down into my own slab of crime schlock, please forgive me. I am a snob. I probably do pity you. But I'm not suggesting you swap your well deserved dollop of escapism for something more wordily improving from the 19th century, or a Booker longlisted experimental novella charting an existentialist afternoon in a Basingstoke public lavatory.

No, all that bugs me about chicklit is the drab limitations it fixes on fictional fantasy for women. The pulp novels marketed at men, by Tom Clancy or Michael Crichton, say, invite them to identify with bold heroes who save the world from international terrorists, asteroids and aliens. They are brilliant spies with PhDs in astrophysics, devilish good looks, fluency in at least nine languages, and a new gadget-laden sportscar to total every other chapter. Whereas the archetypal chicklit heroine starts off a clumsy, overweight PR lackey whose only aspirations are to quit smoking and snog her boss at the office party. She won't get to defuse a bomb or discover the antidote to an interplanetary virus. Can we girls dream no bigger, no wilder?

With her Bridget Jones columns, Fielding sent up the whole silly genre with beautifully pitched Austenesque wit. But by the time Bridget had swollen into two books and a film, the satire was flaking off and the chardonnay-swilling ditz span out of control into a fêted heroine, with much smarter women falling over themselves to identify with her. It was as if Elizabeth Bennet's addle-brained younger sister Lydia had usurped the lead in Pride and Prejudice. It was all wrong.

But hurrah for Fielding! Yet again she's picked up on what's lacking in the girly train read, and whistled us up Olivia Joules: a Jane Bond heroine with a wonderfully overactive imagination which has been getting her into trouble with her editor at the Sunday Times. The book opens as paunchy Barry remonstrates with Olivia ("sweetheart"), about some of the more sci-fi stories she has pitched to him as hard news: "What about the cloud of giant, fanged locusts pancaking down on Ethiopia, blotting out sun?" he queries. "It was the Sudan," she counters. But to no effect. For patronising Barry has decided to pull Olivia off of the international reportage beat, away from the excitement she craves, and shrug her off onto the paper's Style section. Her first assignment, she learns with a plummeting heart, will be to cover the Miami launch of a new face cream.

Who would have guessed that she'd scoop so much more than a handful of exfoliating sea-slug extract at such a dead-end event? But gazing past the hairflicking models, while ignoring the barrage of PR "autowitter" launched in her direction, Olivia spots a rather dishy man whom she's sure she has seen before. Those hooded eyes. Those arched brows. Could it be Osama Bin Laden?

Before you can say "Miami is the new Afghanistan", glamorous, blonde Olivia is up to her moisturised neck in international espionage, gadgetry, romance and danger. It's utterly ridiculous, and all the more fun for it: a technicolour blast to liberate the grey commuting mind. Fielding's frenetically paced prose shimmers and glares with wit, sophistication and humanity. And as Olivia pulls on her scuba gear, plunging towards her enemy's secret underwater base, armed only with a hatpin and a deadly push-up bra, I defy any reader not to hold her breath and forget all about the signal failures at Kettering and the smirking passenger on the seat opposite.