Bridget Jones’s Diary , by Helen Fielding. Viking, 271 pages, $22.95.
It’s very possible that within a month every American book buyer will know the name of Bridget Jones, a 30-something Londoner whose diary records in hilarious detail a ceaseless search for thinner thighs, inner poise and a nice boyfriend. Bridget is the creation of Helen Fielding and a monster hit in England: More than 900,000 copies of Bridget Jones’s Diary have sold in the last six months. Bridget has fans on every high street, down every country lane. Salman Rushdie bestowed a magnificently blunt blurb on the book: “Even men will laugh.”
Will this success translate across the Atlantic? The pre-publication buzz is loud in Manhattan, but for a book to take off, the rest of the country has to hum along. Why a certain novel should work on both sides of the ocean is a mystery not unlike the alchemy that has made Bridget irresistibly charming to her compatriots.
It could have been otherwise: Bridget mocked, dismissed as childish, vapid and whiny or cute and cloying. She is obsessed with her weight and fixated on gooey romance. A chronic slob, her attention span is not just short but perpetually misplaced. She has never sustained a serious thought-at least not if there’s a phone within arm’s reach. As one not-very-nice boyfriend remarks, “If Bridget had a child she’d lose it.” The fixed point in her cultural universe is a television show called Blind Date , the Brit equivalent of The Dating Game .
All the same, she’s hugely likable. Part of it is the dirty-dishes honesty of her diary. Each entry begins with the day’s vital statistics, hard facts accompanied by commentary. Here, for example, is the tally for a Sunday spent waiting for a phone call from that same not-very-nice boyfriend: “126 lbs., alcohol units 5 (drowning sorrows), cigarettes 23 (fumigating sorrows), calories 3,856 (smothering sorrows in fat-duvet).”
The parenthetical remarks are despairing or comically self-justifying, wheedling attempts to dodge her bean-counting conscience. She’s “all for denial” because you can “convince yourself of any scenario you choose and it keeps you happy as a lark.” But she never fudges the facts. And she persists. In her scattered way, she does battle, daunted but undeterred by daily indignities cooked up especially for “Singletons.”
The “Smug Marrieds” are everywhere, lewdly inquiring into her love life and warning her about impending spinsterhood. The typical jowly married boor tells her, “You really ought to hurry up and get sprogged up, you know, old girl.… Time’s running out.” She soldiers on despite the notorious perfidy of almost every unattached male. Her diary is the record of a voice asking casually, in jerky shorthand, for a little more in her life (she habitually drops the first-person pronoun, and the effect is a kind of inadvertent modesty). She’s a lightweight, testosterone-free version of Saul Bellow’s Gene Henderson, whose heart clamors, “I want, I want, I want.” And what is it that Bridget Jones wants? Love, and a measurable sense of improvement, self- or otherwise. Thinner thighs are just a token of better things ahead. Inner poise is the whispered promise of sweet tomorrows.
She tries to override her credulous, moony nature. “Oh God,” she wails on Feb. 13. “Valentine’s Day tomorrow. Why? Why? Why is entire world geared to make people not involved in romance feel stupid when everyone knows romance does not work anyway.… Valentine’s Day purely commercial, cynical enterprise, anyway. Matter of supreme indifference to me.” Her breezy detachment doesn’t last the night. The next entry reads, “Oooh, goody. Valentine’s Day.”
When we meet her, she is marking time in a dead-end publishing job, about to embark on an ill-advised office romance. Another plot strand tracks the breakup of her parents’ marriage. Bridget moans, “The last remaining tiny bathmat of security has been pulled from under my feet.”
Now she has redundant proof that no blissful stability beckons from beyond the hectic uncertainty of single life. Her egregiously daffy mother takes up with a “late-in-life smoothie,” a louche liaison that sets up an opera buffa ending. A nice boyfriend for Bridget hovers on the horizon, miragelike (it doesn’t help that his name is Darcy). He bursts on the scene at last to provide comedy’s conventional closure-but nobody in her or his right mind would read this novel to find out what happens next.
Helen Fielding wrote the diary as a newspaper column; Bridget’s adventures are installments in a broadsheet saga, part soap, part sitcom-episodic either way. A trio of single friends, a chorus commenting on our heroine’s progress, provide background continuity. Every fresh crisis calls for a booze-soaked summit attended by Jude, the self-help addict, who introduces Bridget to Zen, feng shui and other faddish enthusiasms; Sharon, the archfeminist who explains that men “are so catastrophically unevolved that soon they will be just kept by women as pets for sex”; and Tom, her gay confidant, who likes to intone, “in a sepulchral voice … ‘Only Women Bleed.’”
The diary form works like a mantra, phrases ritually repeated, quotidian details recurring, embellished with amusing variations. There is the constant of her fluctuating weight (“bobbing up and down like a drowning corpse”), which reaches an 18-year low of 119 pounds on April 22. She writes, “Rang Tom, who said maybe I have a tapeworm. The way to get rid of it, he said, is to hold a bowl of warm milk and a pencil in front of my mouth. (Tapeworms love warm milk, apparently. They love it.) Open my mouth. Then, when the worm’s head appears, wrap it carefully round the pencil.” She tells Tom, “Listen … this tapeworm is staying.”
Then she goes to a party (“in tight little black dress to show off figure feeling v. full of myself”) where everybody tells her she looks “tired and flat.”
Bridget recognizes in herself “a child of Cosmopolitan culture.”
She submits to a variety of tortures every time she gets ready to go out-waxing, peeling, scraping, trimming. These cult rituals are odd and fascinating: “necessity of open mouth during mascara application great unexplained mystery of nature.” Before a date, it’s scarcely controlled chaos; often, afterwards, painful next-morning punishment: “Badly need water but seems better to keep eyes closed and head stationary on pillow so as not to disturb bits of machinery and pheasants in head.”
She endures the Singleton’s dread bouts of loneliness: “Cannot face thought of entire Sunday stretching ahead with everybody else in the world except me in bed with someone giggling and having sex.”
In Middlemarch , George Eliot rolled out this sonorous pronouncement: “That element of tragedy which lies in the very fact of frequency, has not yet wrought itself into the coarse emotion of mankind; and perhaps our frames could hardly bear much of it.” Ms. Fielding is mining the element of comedy from the very fact of frequency-and it turns out that we can bear quite a lot of it. But Bridget’s creator would surely agree with Eliot’s conclusion: “As it is, the quickest of us walk about well wadded with stupidity.”
Bridget’s signature stupidity, her foolish faith in a brighter future, is also her most lovable trait. Ms. Fielding wisely refrains from showing us the spectacle of our heroine satisfied, content, at last possessed of inner poise-that is, smug. Like most of us, Bridget is at her best with something to look forward to. Did I mention that there’s a sequel in the works?