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Single minded

"Single minded" Continued...

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

And just as Bridget Jones wickedly satires modern office politics and drunken London nightlife, the Theodora and Ashley novels cast a sardonic eye on contemporary evangelicalism. In Theodora's Diary, for example, Theodora's friend Charity-a perfect Christian who has umpteen children and who has never so much as returned a library book late-turns up at church hysterical because her daughter Zilpah "has been asked to peruse the most unsuitable reading material" at school. Charity has petitioned the teacher and the headmaster, but they only pooh-pooh her concerns.

Charity is frantic because "one of the main characters . . . is a witch. And there's all sorts of magic kingdoms and pagan creatures," and the book seems to promote "the worship of animals." Finally Charity pulls the offending book out of her bag-she didn't want to leave it at home because "you never know what powers these materials might have." Is it Harry Potter? Nope. Charity is freaking about The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

Theodora and Ashley also share with their secular cousins a certain plot line, what scholars call the marriage plot. The marriage plot has a venerable heritage. We find its origins not in Bridget Jones, but in the novels of the 18th century, typified by Austen. The marriage plot turns on pairing off a man and woman, testing them to see if the match is appropriate, and finally leading them down the aisle. The trajectory of a woman's life is one long courtship culminating in marriage, and marriage is the end of the story.

Chick lit, Christian and secular, has more or less followed the marriage plot. Bridget Jones gets her happy ending . . . in the arms of delectable Mr. Darcy. Her Christian counterpart, Theodora Llewelyn, similarly finds happiness by securing a diamond from the ever-faithful Kevin. Ditto Ashley Stockingdale and her beau Seth.

And that is perhaps the one place where Christian chick lit's imitation of Bridget goes too far. In their uncritical hewing to the marriage plot, these Christian novels tell an incomplete story.

The problem is not with any one individual novel. I don't begrudge Theodora her titular wedding. I hope she and Kevin live happily ever after. (Perhaps we'll meet her in a trequel, representing the sub-sub-sub-genre Christian mommy lit, sort of Allison Pearson meets Stormie Omartian.) The problem is that Christian chick lit as a genre seems motivated by the assumption that the happiest ending-the only ending that makes sense-is girl-gets-guy.

Indeed, this was the one thing that ticked me off when I first read Bridget Jones's Diary. I'd been reading along, utterly identifying with the plights and anxieties of neurotic Bridget, feeling equally worried about my dance card (would it ever be full?), my mother (would she ever quit haranguing about maximizing my beauty potential?), and my diet (if I ate cottage cheese and carrots all week, could I squeeze into that dress?). I sympathized when Bridget fell for the cad who really didn't care about her. I sympathized as her mom nagged her about her glaringly nude ring finger. I sympathized when she embarrassed herself on the job.

And then, at the end of the book, I stopped sympathizing. (In fact, I threw the book across the room.) What I had hoped-what I had assumed, actually, because I was new to the genre and didn't yet know its conventions-was that the novel would end when Bridget somehow learned to stop worrying quite so much about shedding pounds and finding Mr. Right. I didn't expect her to foreswear dating, give all her designer duds to Goodwill, and contentedly pork out as an act of resistance to a patriarchal culture that wants women to look like waifs. I just wanted her to begin to derive some sense of self from something other than a boyfriend.

And when Bridget finally won Darcy, I felt duped. Here I'd identified with Bridget for 200 pages-her struggle was my struggle, her saga was my saga, and I actually took some comfort in reading about her travails (misery loves company, I guess, even if the company is fictional). But there was no way for me to identify with wooing a billionaire attorney who would be played by Colin Firth in the film. Bridget went happily off to Never-neverland, and I was still at home with my dance card and my bathroom scale.

My wildly off-base expectations about Bridget's denouement now sound a little absurd. I've read over 40 specimens of chick literature, all of which end as Bridget ends-with the girl bagging the most eligible bachelor in London (or New York, or L.A.).

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