I swear that this time my lack of updates isn’t because I forgot I have a blog. It’s because I’ve had writers’ block for the last year or so, and I’ve had a hard time focusing my attention and energy directly onto any one project for more than a few weeks at a time. It’s been fun to wallow around in dramatic, emotional, existential gloom, but all good things must come to an end. Last week I realized in a panic that NaNoWriMo is about to start again, and I haven’t missed a year since my first successful novel writing in 2013. “Better get started, then, with that research and outlining!” I thought to myself upon waking last week. So I immediately did what any writer does: I logged into Overdrive and downloaded an audiobook. My first rule of NaNoWriMo is always procrastination.
I settled upon Mad About the Boy because I’d seen a movie preview for another Bridget Jones movie, Bridget Jones’ Baby. I’d read Mad About the Boy as a physical book a couple of times, and I’d thought that it was OK. It lacked the charm of the first book, but I thought it was better than the very predictable second book. I know from reading reviews and message boards that there are a whole camp of people who hated Mad About the Boy for following, very spoiler-ey reasons:
- Mark Darcy is dead. Dead! How could she do this?! We loved Mark! At first I hated this too, but this very dead-ness became something that I came to love about the book during my current listening, which we will discuss later.
- The fart jokes. I’m not sure if Helen Fielding was attempting to show that Bridget’s sense of humor had sunk to very crass levels because she was raising two young children alone and had become very comfortable with bodily functions, or if it was a reflection on the immaturity of Bridget’s 29 year old, Millennial style boyfriend, but I agree that they were a little overdone. I felt like shouting “we get it! She’s a single mom! Her boyfriend is immature! Enough!” But I did not, because I try not to shout while driving my car. I am not always successful, I will admit.
- The eventual real love interest, Mr. Wallaker, seems throwin in almost as an afterthought at the end of the book. I’m not sure if there was a sense of trying to wrap the story up in a certain number of pages, or if the original manuscript was edited in such a way that it appears that Bridget just decides she’s in love with this man because he’s good at helping her manage the children and she’s tired of doing it alone, but that was the impression I’d gotten. I may be spoiled by the Mark situation because the first installments spread their dating life over two full books, giving us the opportunity to see the process, whereas her decision seems pretty abrupt in this book. Or maybe it’s that Bridget is a mom in her fifties, and she knows what she needs in a partner at this point in life, so the actual courtship period didn’t need to be quite as drawn out.
- The texting and tweeting. I think this is just a problem with modern writing, If you’re going to set a book in modern times, and the characters are engaged in everyday activities that rely heavily on technology, there is going to be a fair amount of annoying, hard to read technoformatting. I think this probably could have been written without trying to format tweets to look like this: <@twittername Good luck formatting this annoying fucking conversational style!>, but instead just spelled out in narrative: “TwitterUser tweeted at me that he thought I should stop tweeting at much, so I replied that he should blow me.” I think this is a style dilemma that we are going to see in a lot of books going forward, so it merely made me roll my eyes.
The plot of this book is pretty haphazard. There are a lot of little story threads woven throughout, and some of the characters are almost hyperbolic. There’s Bridget’s young boyfriend, Roxster, who is very much a stereotype in his constant talk of food, potty humor, and use of the word “heart” instead of “love.” There’s also Bridget’s new boss, a film producer named George, who is a picture of a powerful but busy businessman who darts in and out of scenes shouting directions and then immediately leaving to get on a plan for somewhere incomprehensible. That’s not what the story is about, however.
If you ever read or watch something and hate it because you don’t identify with the main character, I recommend giving it another chance a few years later. I’m glad I did that with this book. This book isn’t another Bridget Jones love story, and it’s not about how she thinks she’s bad at dating. This is a book about dealing with grief and life changes, and if you read or listen to it with that in mind, it is a masterpiece.
Bridget Jones finds herself a widow, still grieving for her dead husband and suffering from depression. Unfortunately, it is five years after the fact, and society and her friends are starting to run out of sympathy. I don’t mean that they’re unkind, because they truly are great friends in this book and they do help her through the grieving process. However, even they are starting to see that mourning has given way to an actual period of depression, where Bridget realizes she’s stagnating and needs to find a way to create a new normal for herself. Unfortunately, every time she tries, she’s filled with anxiety that she’s going to screw up her kids, or have to deal with failure, or that she’s going to hate whatever new thing she’s just started and her life will never be happy again. Oh my God, Bridget, you are all of us.
Helen Fielding very accurately describes what it’s like when you go through some sort of massive, life-altering change in your life, and it affects everything that you thought would be stable and solid. It doesn’t have to be the landmine related death of your spouse, it could be anything far reaching and dramatic. It could be the loss of a job that you moved across the country or the world for, or it could be the diagnosis of a serious disease. It could even be a happy change. I’m currently watching a friend struggle with her lifestyle change after her marriage. She’d lived alone for 42 years, then got engaged to someone with three kids and moved in with him about a week before their wedding. She’s still dealing with a loss, the loss of normality. CHANGE IS SO HARD, and Bridget has passed the point where it’s socially acceptable for her to bunker down with her kids, eat whatever she wants, and not have any outside interests.
Here’s where 51 year old Bridget differs from 30 something Bridget. Rather than try to change everything in her life, all at once, this new Bridget is older and wiser. She and her friends recognize that she needs to make small, positive steps in order to deal with the issues that have been causing her stress, anxiety, and depression. This method of identifying a problem area and then taking small steps to fix the issue is something I’ve come across in behavioral therapy, of both the human and canine varieties. Bridget’s action plan includes dealing with the following:
- The physical effects of depression. Bridget has gained a lot of weight since the first book, in which she aspires to clock in around 120 lbs. Part of this is her distracted eating of leftovers from her children and then eating her own dinner, and part of it is because she just doesn’t care the way she did in her thirties. Rather than attempting a million fad diets, the way she did in the first book, she goes to a doctor and goes on a medical treatment plan. She doesn’t necessarily realize it, but this is the first step in preparing herself to re-enter society. When she’s done, she happily lands at a weight about ten pounds over her “ideal” from the first book, and she’s grateful for it. She doesn’t spend nearly as much time criticizing individual parts of her own body, she fixes what is making her unhappy, and she accepts herself when she reaches her goal.
- Confronting her feelings of loneliness. Bridget repeatedly says to herself that she must not sink into “if only” and “but for” thinking, because it will only feel worse and there is nothing she can do about it. Immediately after Mark’s death, she and the children go to a professional therapist and they get to the point where she’s OK – surviving. That was the goal. But five years in, merely surviving just isn’t enough. She’s not just lonely because she’s a widow, she’s lonely because she wants someone she can share her life with, especially the milestones her children are reaching. She attempts to date someone she meets in a club, but finds dating to be horrible and embarrassing. She then ends up on Twitter and ends up “meeting” the man she’ll date for most of the book. This seemed really natural to me. They met through some fun, flirty tweeting, and then met up for dinner. Neither had entered into interaction with the intention of dating, but then they found out that they liked each other. I also loved Bridget’s approach to dating, where she resorts to her past habit of self help books. Unlike in her thirties, where she let herself get confused by the conflicting advice, Bridget tackles this like any other project – with research and organization. She reads all of her books and makes a list of dating rules. They may be bullshit rules, but that’s not the point. Bridget is worried about dating, so she does something to manage that fear. She learns that by being prepared for various situations, she’s not as anxious.
- Twitter obsession. Bridget resolves to get involved with social media in an attempt to keep up with the world. I was amused at her friends’ insistence that she not join Facebook, because Facebook is a medium people primarily use to judge and stalk each other. They’re not wrong. Bridget joins twitter instead, and spends some time unable to figure out how it works. As soon as she does, she becomes addicted. I’m addicted to twitter myself, so this amused me. I like the freedom to randomly tweet out the crap that pops into my head, although whether or not the rest of the world is grateful for that remains to be seen. This is how she meets Roxster, they’re able to flirt and get a feel for the others’ personality and sense of humor, and I think that’s a really nice thing about the internet.
- Bridget learns LOVE IS NOT ENOUGH. When Bridget meets Roxster, I think we’re supposed to see immediately that he’s completely unsuitable for her, but I don’t think that this is true. He’s suitable for her right now. She’s insecure about dating at her age, and Roxster happens to like older women because they’re more comfortable with themselves than women his own age. He’s constantly making crude fart jokes and obsessing about food, but he’s also a complete gentleman to Bridget. When she embarrasses herself, he swoops in and makes light of the situation, helping her laugh instead of feeling like a failure. He’s obviously not ready for a domestic lifestyle, but he and Bridget share a similar sense of humor, and they get along together really well. He makes her laugh, and forget that she’s been so sad and lonely. I think Helen Fielding took the stereotype a little too far, but I don’t hate Roxster, unlike many other readers. Eventually when they do break up for good, they do it because Bridget recognizes that while Roxster says he’s going to try to be the perfect man for her and her family, she knows that he’s not ready. She wants him to learn by starting a family of his own with someone who is at a similar point in her own life. It’s not because she doesn’t love him – how could she not? He gave her the gift of knowing that she is still beautiful and desirable. But she also knows that love isn’t enough in this situation, and this is something that a lot of people in real life could stand to learn. Bridget needs someone who is ready to enter into an already developed, long term lifestyle with her, to be a constant figure who will help her raise children. This may be the real appeal of Mr. Wallaker later in the book, with his regimental leadership style and sense of control and command of chaotic situations. As abrupt as their relationship seemed, the fact that they had the foundation for a future right off the bat kind of explains some of that haste. They didn’t need to figure out where their relationship would go and what it would be, they just needed to realize how much they really liked each other.
- Bizarre career expectations. I’d forgotten that Bridget was a presenter for Sit Up Britain and then ended up being a freelance journalist. Because of this, it seemed really weird to me at first that she was able to throw together a screenplay and snag an agent. But then I remembered that yes, she is connected, and she’s using her celebrity friendships to her advantage. Good for you, Bridget! No imposter syndrome for her. It sounded fun, so she tried it out. Her screenplay is picked up almost immediately, and it turns into a trainwreck just as quickly. She created something she was proud of, and the movie people took it and changed it piece by piece until it was unrecognizable. My gossipy side would really like to know if Helen Fielding went through this when her movies were made. This up and down sense of elation, failure, and eventual coming to terms with reality is something I know I’ve felt during almost every project I’ve ever started. Hurrah, I started a project! Oh, shit, I forgot I have a blog. Oh well, I guess I’ll put some kind of content up eventually. The life cycle of hope, right here.
- Eventual personal peace and happiness. Bridget isn’t ready for happiness when the book starts. If someone had handed her the next best thing to Mark Darcy on a platter, she’d have run away, too overwhelmed and filled with self doubt to handle it. Bridget has to go through the awful, character building steps of experiencing setbacks, and the idea that things are never quite as you expect them to be. She has to see that small things can happen that will bring you down and depress you, but that you can work it out and move past it. Hell, she slowly but surely worked past the death of her husband, so having her Heda Gabler screenplay turned into a romantic comedy should be no big deal, right? Bridget needs to learn how to prioritize her successes and failures on the dramatic emergency scale. It’s only after she confronts the other things that are troubling her that she’s secure enough as a person to enter into another long term relationship.
Aside from Bridget’s personal transformations, the best thing about this book is Helen Fielding’s treatment of Mark’s death and Bridget’s mourning process. She doesn’t get into the subject all at once, because it’s too painful. We know Bridget is a widow because she alludes to it at the beginning, hardly able to even narrate it without trying to distract herself. As the book progresses, she mentions Mark and his death more. Every special event or personal holiday turns tragic as she remembers what it was like when he was there, and is devastated by the fact that she will never have him or those moments again. She can’t allow herself to sink into grief though, because she has to try to give her children a happy upbringing. Every time she starts to panic and overthink herself into the hole of sadness, she tells herself to just stop thinking about it and do something else. Eventually she writes Mark a long letter, and we learn how he died a hero, how it was sudden, and how she couldn’t even grieve properly because she had to hold herself together for the kids. I have cried every time I reach this part, whether I’m reading or listening to the book. For all the fart jokes and silly digressions about nits and producers who can’t stay in meetings for more than ten minutes, Helen Fielding can really put the most universal emotions down on paper beautifully and clearly when the scene calls for it. I appreciated these scenes the first time I read the book, but they’re especially good now that I’m older and have dealt with the loss of multiple people in my life. I’m sure my changing thirties hormones didn’t help either – nothing like vicariously experiencing grief and loss at the very height of a PMS and red wine induced pity party!
So, to summarize what has been an unnecessarily long and gushing post, I liked this book a lot more now that I’m older and more experienced. I was able to see past the sketchiness of the plot structure to really see what was going on with Bridget. I can’t wait for the next book and movie, I hope that Helen Fielding continues to present us with silly, laughable plots while still making us think about how we deal with life’s uncomfortable situations.