Book Reviews
6:18 pm
Fri October 18, 2013

Bridget In Middle Age: We're Not So 'Mad About' This Girl

Originally published on Wed October 23, 2013 6:43 pm

As you may have already heard by now, in the latest installment of the Bridget Jones saga, sexy love interest Mark Darcy is dead. The outcry over his death was not caused by sadness so much as by the sense readers had that killing him was a cheat, a sacrilege, somehow morally wrong. There hasn't been this much of a fuss made over the death of a character since Downton Abbey knocked off Lady Sybil in childbirth. In both cases, you want to say, "Lighten up, people, it's a made-up person!" But of course, part of the point of a novel or television show is to get you to believe in the existence of the characters — much the way children believe in Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny — and therefore to care about what happens to them.

Personally, I am not among the outraged. I can tolerate living in a universe in which Mark Darcy has been killed by a land mine in Darfur and is no longer happily married to Bridget or present in the lives of their two young children — which, we soon learn, is what's happened in the years that have elapsed since the last volume. What's harder to tolerate is the fact that Bridget Jones has lost a good deal of her charm.

In the first two books, the detailed accounts of drinking, snogging, shagging and so forth were irresistible and seemed effortless. Bridget was messy, adorable and real. Now she's a strange hybrid — messy, yes, but sometimes embarrassing and not authentic. It's not that aging has to be grim, but it may require a new form for it to be funny. Instead of only cataloging cigarettes smoked and units of alcohol drunk, 51-year-old Bridget also keeps a list of "number of nits" on her 31-year-old boyfriend (her kids had head lice), the number of "mass emails from class parents," and "minutes late for school pickups." The book zooms back and forth between sexy debauchery with her young "toy boy," Roxster (that's his Twitter handle — yes, Bridget is on Twitter), and good-natured domestic comedy with her children. But it doesn't all hang together in the hilarious, breezy way these books used to. I found myself pining for Young Bridget.

Look, I think I get what Fielding was trying to do here. This marvelous character is her invention, and she can do with her what she likes. It's admirable to try to go against type, to resist what would've been the more obvious gambit for Volume 3: Life with Darcy. To create a household in which Mum and Dad are constantly interrupted by their kids just when things are gearing up romantically, et cetera. And it's also admirable to say, pretty much, here's the deal: Bridget Jones has become this 50-ish widow, and while her life is kind of a disaster, and her children are vomiting all over her, she can still have a torrid affair with a much younger guy and have a great time and be desirable. Basically, Fielding tries to show, just because you're in your 50s, you don't have to sink into the sludge of midlife and wear mom jeans. "What do you mean, middle-aged?'" Bridget declares. "In Jane Austen's day we'd all be dead by now ... The point is, the whole expression 'middle-aged' conjures up a certain look." Fielding reminds readers that a woman like Bridget can be sexy and empowered even after she's been through a lot and is no longer young.

And that is all true. There are deeply funny flashes of classic Bridget Jones at various points throughout this book. When trying to attach her photo to her Twitter account, she keeps only getting the egg-shaped graphic, which she decides "can be photo of self before was conceived." And when, in her effort to lose the tremendous amount of weight she's put on, she goes to the gym, only to find "everyone contorted ludicrously in machines like Hieronymus Bosch painting."

Some of the moments of melancholy reflection on Mark Darcy are affecting. But they only remind me that if you're going to kill off the fantastic love interest in your wildly appealing novels, you have to be prepared for the mood and content you'll be left with. There are just too many other moments here when Bridget doesn't find her footing, and seems foolish and unreal, which was never the case before. In the end, it almost seems that she, inadvertently, is the one who has really been killed off.

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Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish.

The first time we met Bridget Jones was in print back in 1996. Three years later came a sequel, then a pair of movies starring Renee Zellweger. In all of them, Bridget winds up with Mark Darcy, the perfect leading man. Well, a new "Bridget Jones" book is out and - spoiler alert - as it opens, it looks as though our heroine's luck has run out. In case you haven't heard, Darcy is dead, and fans are outraged. Here's Meg Wolitzer with a review.

MEG WOLITZER, BYLINE: For me, it's not about Darcy. I can tolerate living in a world without him, since he was killed by a land mine in Darfur. What's harder to swallow is that Bridget Jones has lost a lot of her charm. In the first two books, Bridget gave us the details of her drinking and snogging and shagging. She kept track of how many cigarettes she smoked and units of alcohol she consumed. She was messy and adorable and very funny. 51-year-old Bridget also keeps lists like the number of mass emails from class parents and minutes late for school pickups.

I think I get what Fielding is trying to do here. The more obvious choice would've been to write Volume Three: Life with Darcy. There would've been material there: mom and dad constantly getting interrupted by their kids just when things are gearing up romantically. But Fielding resisted that, which I think is admirable. This marvelous character was her invention and she can do with her what she wants. So she makes Bridget this 50-ish widow, having a torrid affair with a young guy - what the British call a toy boy - who she calls by his Twitter handle, Roxster. The message is just because you're in your 50s doesn't mean you have to sink into the sludge of midlife and wear mom jeans.

But what people loved about the first, and even about the second, book was Bridget. And it turns out that even the most beloved characters can wear out their welcome if there's nothing funny left to say about them. The character needs to be preserved somehow. And weirdly, that didn't happen this time. It almost feels like a fan fiction version of Bridget Jones.

There are some moments of classic Bridget, like when she goes to the gym and finds everyone contorted ludicrously in machines like Hieronymus Bosch painting. And some of the melancholy reflections on the dead Mark Darcy are affecting. But still, they remind me that if you're going to kill off the fantastic love interest in your wildly appealing novels, you have to be prepared for what you're left with.

CORNISH: The book is "Bridget Jones: Mad About the Boy" by Helen Fielding. Our reviewer is Meg Wolitzer. Her latest book is "The Interestings." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.