Before I began to read Mad About the Boy, this likeable third instalment of Bridget Jones's diary, I decided that our valiant heroine, happily ensconced with husband and children, should be working as a counsellor for Relate.
I saw her living vicariously through other people's scrapes and catastrophes, from a place of grown-up contentment, sending out beams of strong sympathy and pony-club vim, with head inclined and knowing smiles. I even imagined her patients confessing that it was easier telling the children they were divorcing than it was telling her.
In this way, I thought, Helen Fielding would still be able to champion her heroine's schoolgirlish charm, and inclination for/attachment to catastrophe, without suggesting that her development was woefully stunted, or A Bridget Too Far. But not a bit of it. In order not to make her heroine's behaviour look sad in the modern sense of "not to be envied in the least", Fielding has made Bridget genuinely sad.
She is widowed with two small children, her happy ending smashed by the shocking death of Mark Darcy, five years before the book begins. On occasion Fielding almost puts a toe in Anita Brookner territory, with Jones brave and self-disciplined in navy silk, eating grated cheese - if Brookner lived in North London chaos , that is, and was addicted to her smartphone. Jones describes her modus operandi as that of "A drowning person, only more optimistic". Her work is an adaptation of "Chekhov's Hedda Gabbler" relocated to a dank Queen's Park terrace. Of course.
Into this vulnerable-hearted and slightly over-grown teenage world comes "Roxster" McDuff, a charming man 21 years her junior, met – how else? - through Twitter. The advances of communications technology since the mid-Nineties were made for Bridget's more obsessive side. This relationship contains plenty of cheer and pleasure. Still, when in a tender moment Roxster declares, "I wish I had a time machine", Bridget senses it may be time to worry.
Despite the slightly fraught setting there are laughs to be had. Bridget, polite as ever, in the middle of sex, replying to her younger lover: "Well, 'You make ME hard." There is deft school-gates satire and Fielding is very good on the 312 emails parents send out in the run-up to an impromptu picnic: "I'll bring sliced carrots, and radishes. Could someone else do red and yellow peppers?" That comma after carrots says it all.
There are some very successful minor characters, both original and knowingly drawn, such as the high-powered mother Nicolette (or Nicorette) who describes her children as just about the most exciting products she has ever developed. Bridget also has a grand neighbour living in deluxe Primrose Hill squalor, her garden "a hidden world of brick pathways, long field-like grass, a life-sized cow with a crown on its head, a laminated motel sign saying 'Vacancy' and chandeliers in the trees."
There is an awkward tension in this book between the parts that seem very knowing and the parts that don't. Widowhood has kept her out of step with her friends' lives, naturally, but at one point Bridget decrees that one must not text while drunk as though it is a brave new thought. She also wishes she had a Middleton-style fascinator. In 2013! Her calorie counting also sits very uncomfortably on the page now it's lost its innocence, and I did wish Bridget hadn't lost her heart to a man who coos things like "After I've finished with you". But for every cup there is a saucer, I suppose.
The real stars of Mad About the Boy are Bridget's children. The way, both Mum and Dad to them, she handles their headlice and their small-hours vomit and grief is heroic. The best scene is when she reassures them late at night with words that remind her of Mark: "All the thoughts are going away. Just like the little birds in their nests, and the rabbits in the rabbit holes. The thoughts don't need Billy and Mabel tonight. The world will turn without them. The moon will shine without them. And all Billy and Mabel need to do is rest and sleep."
Susie Boyt's new novel is 'The Small Hours' (Virago)
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