Single minded

Literary Trends | Why must Christian "chick lit" always reach the same destination as its secular counterpart-the altar?

Issue: "Summer Books 2004," July 3, 2004

I don't know who coined thephrase "chick lit," but I can tell you when the genre started garnering attention-in 1998, when Viking published Helen Fielding's Bridget Jones's Diary. A charming chocoholic London singleton obsessed with losing weight, and even more obsessed with finding true love, Bridget Jones changed publishing. Her diary was followed not only by a sequel, Bridget Jones on the Edge of Reason, but also by scads of other chick lit novels: Jane Green's Jemima J, Sophie Kinsella's Confessions of a Shopaholic, Jennifer Weiner's Good in Bed, and on and on.

And now we have Christian chick lit. One reviewer called this new sub-sub-genre "Bridget Jones goes to church," and that's about right. The heroines are still chocoholics, they're still worried about their waistline, they're still on the hunt for a hunk. The difference is, they're believers. They scope men at church 20s and 30s groups, not at late-night clubs.

Some critics have greeted the advent of Christian chick lit with a certain disdain. It's just like Christians to be Johnny-come-latelys; now that the secular world is saturated with chick lit, the CBA gets on board. This could be seen as the perfect example of what Walter Kirn, writing in GQ two years ago, called a Christian alternaculture, in which "everything in mainstream culture gets cloned and then leached of 'sinful' content."

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But I, personally, welcome Christian chick lit with enthusiasm. Chick lit, to be sure, is not Great Literature-but it is entertaining. It's fun to curl up with a light-hearted novel whose protagonist reminds me of myself. And who cares if Christian authors are, to some extent, mimicking Helen Fielding? Ms. Fielding, after all, was mimicking Jane Austen, and no one dismissively accused her of cloning Regency fiction and leaching it of 18th-century content.

So herewith, a brief introduction to my two favorite Christian chick lit heroines.

First meet Ashley Stockingdale, whose story begins in What a Girl Wants, and continues in this summer's sequel, She's Out of Control. (A third novel, With This Ring, I'm Confused, is in the works.) Ashley, who's begun to suspect that she's "single for a reason" instead of "single for a season," is a fun-loving patent attorney with a penchant for Prada. Ashley's best friend, Brea, is happily married; the single's pastor's wife has just announced she's pregnant; and Ashley is beginning to get sick of Sunday lunch at TGIFriday's with the church singles group. So though she insists that she "live[s] a full life as a Christian single, and [isn't] waiting for life to start when I get married," Ashley is starting to wonder who, exactly, her future mate is, and why he hasn't yet pulled up on a great white steed-or at least in a Mercedes SLK320.

Ashley's English alter ego is Theodora Llewellyn, star of Theodora's Diary and Theodora's Wedding. Thirty-something Theodora holds down a respectable white-collar job, maintains loving relationships with her slightly eccentric family, nurtures a romance with the sports-obsessed but amiable Kevin, and takes occasional trips to Greece. She also worships at the wacky St. Norbert's Church, where she organizes church fetes and befriends wise, elderly women. In two delightful novels, readers accompany Theodora through mishaps at the office, dating debacles, and a little undercover detective work. I was sad when I finished Theodora's Wedding. I will miss Theodora's company.

One would expect Christian chick lit to differ from its secular counterpart, and in some ways it does. There's much less imbibing. And the sexual escapades that are the sine qua non of secular chick lit are absent. (When Theodora's boyfriend surprises her with a weekend in Italy, she insists upon separate rooms.)

But there are also many similarities between the secular and Christian chick lit novels. The Theodora novels are undoubtedly inspired by Bridget Jones. They're set in England, and they follow the same diary format (though Bridget began her diary on New Year's Day, and Theodora begins hers at the end of June, noting that an unexpected case of chicken pox, which leaves Theodora in bed and quarantined, is actually a "blessing in disguise. I am determined to use the time to grow spiritually . . . by keeping a journal. . . . I know it's a bit unusual to start a diary at the end of June, but I've never been one to pander to convention"). On the whole, Theodora's Diary and What a Girl Wants feature the same witty dialogue, the same charmingly self-effacing and slightly insecure heroines, and the same endearing Greek chorus of friends that combined to make Bridget Jones's Diary such a success.


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