Ain't life simple?

The latest primer for women in search of fulfilment is a million- selling American `daybook' that promises to light the path to self-discovery. Is it what we've been waiting for?

Quick, girls! The hot, new American self-help bible has arrived. Forget The Rules and Men Are From Mars and Women Who Dance With Wolves and rush for your copy of Simple Abundance: A Daybook of Comfort and Joy (Bantam Press, pounds 12.99). Packaged like the real thing, with a tree of life woodcut on the cover and a blue ribbon to mark your place, it has sold more than a million hardback copies in the United States and has been on the New York Times bestseller list since April. Meanwhile, the author, Sarah Ban Breathnach, was chosen by Oprah Winfrey as a guest on her People I'd Most Like To Have Dinner With show and has had free plugs ever since.

Unlike Smart Women From Venus et al, Simple Abundance is not about men and sex and how to get more of both. It is, rather, a self-help manual for the Bridges of Madison County generation: the vast army of housewives who are not manhunting in Manhattan, who don't do Prozac, and are too flabbed out by serial pregnancy to consider an affair, but who nevertheless feel dissatisfied with life.

The answer to their prayers, according to Ban Breathnach (pronounced Bahn Brannock), is not the gym, a fat-free diet or winning the Lottery, but ordering one's life according to six simple principles. "First, there is gratitude," she writes. "When we do a mental and spiritual inventory of all that we have, we realise that we are very rich indeed. Gratitude gives way to simplicity - the desire to clear out, pare down, and realise the essentials of what we need to live truly well. Simplicity brings with it order, both internally and externally. A sense of order in our life brings us harmony. Harmony provides us with the inner peace we need to appreciate the beauty that surrounds us each day, and beauty opens us to joy."

If this sounds a little vague, not to mention as difficult as becoming a Buddhist monk, fear not, for Simple Abundance is written as a diary, with an inspirational quote and thought for each day. Today's entry, for example, begins with the following lines from Elizabeth Barrett Browning: "God answers sharp and sudden on some prayers, And thrusts the thing we have prayed for in our face, A gauntlet with a gift in `it'." The homily, meanwhile, is about not having your prayers answered. "We pray to meet our soulmate, instead of praying for the grace to become the woman our soulmate would be attracted to; we pray for worldly success when what we really long for is a sense of authentic accomplishment; we pray for more money, when what we need is a change in our relationship to money."

If this still sounds awfully hard - certainly harder than going to an aerobics class, or having grilled chicken and salad for lunch - then there is a handy list of "joyful simplicities" at the end of each month which any fool can follow through. In November, for example, Ban Breathnach's practical recommendations include making a Native American dream-catching net (take one small embroidery thread ...); taking a basket of food to a shelter (start with turkey ...); watching the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade; and "Have fun choosing your own Advent calendar".

Why has Simple Abundance, a book that does not promise a new husband/body within the year, become such a phenomenon? Oprah plugs aside, it oozes the values of the best-selling Bridges of Madison County: romantic, escapist, anti-urban, anti-materialist and awfully Nineties. The book's original title was the far less folksy Real Life: Knowing What You Love, Knowing How To Live. The author, meanwhile, has given herself a faux-Amish pen name, complete with faux-Celtic pronunciation; in real life, she is the ultra-prosaic Mrs Ed Brand.

The writing, meanwhile, is designed to appeal both to old-style God-fearers of the Mid-West and New Age vanguardists on the coasts: "Simple Abundance has reminded me what to do with a few loaves and fishes," writes Ban Breathnach in her foreword, "and has shown me how to spin straw into gold. Simple Abundance has given me the transcendent awareness that an authentic life is the most personal form of worship. Everyday life has become my prayer." Ad nauseam.

Look beneath all this spiritual harmony, however, and what you find is the same reactionary message that women's magazines have been promoting all century: how to be a happy housewife. On 4 January, for example, Ban Breathnach urges: "It does take more effort to set an inviting table, but it enhances our enjoyment of eating. We all feel better when we take those few extra minutes to fix our hair and put on make-up, but what's more, we act different."

Three days later, she is telling her readers: "We must learn to savour small, authentic moments that bring us contentment. Experiment with a new cookie recipe. Take the time to slowly arrange a bouquet of flowers in order to appreciate their colours, fragrance, and beauty. Sip a cup of tea on the front stoop in the sunshine. Pause for five minutes to pet a purring cat."

On 16 January: "No woman can think clearly when constantly surrounded by clutter, chaos, and confusion, no matter who is responsible for it. Begin to think of order not as a straitjacket of `shoulds' (make the bed, wash the dishes, take out the garbage) but as a shape - the foundation - for the beautiful new life you are creating."

Because hoovering is boring and need not fill a whole day, the happy housewife has, of course, to complexify her work: thus Ban Breathnach is especially keen on the Christmas card Victorian family: beeswax candles in the freezer (they last longer, apparently); lavender-scented sachets in your lingerie drawer; and events like the Valentine's Day tea, which features "hand-crafted paper confections" and two kinds of pink, heart- shaped cakes. "Try this once and it is sure to become a February tradition."

If these sound suspiciously like the thoughts of American uberhousewife Martha Stewart, there's a twist. On 31 January, for example, Ban Breathnach asks, "Can you make a pot of homemade soup for supper tonight? I relish this joyful simplicity once a week during the winter. Chopping, paring, and scraping are very calming activities. Really look at the colours of the vegetables - the orange of the carrots, the bright green celery, the pearly white onion. You have a beautiful still life in front of you. Don't rush through the process but enjoy the mindfulness, or the Zen, of cooking ..."

No valium, no gin, no daytime television, no M&S snacks with the girls, but The Zen Superwoman Housewife. Thank goodness British women don't go for these books

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