Ever wonder how Bridget Jones' diary might have read if she were a single mother with a rat fink ex-husband and a couple of kids in tow? That pretty much describes Hot and Bothered, a saucy new "chick lit" novel by Vermont journalist Annie Downey. Like the singleton made famous by Helen Fielding, its narrator is perpetually frazzled, given to odd sartorial choices, and not a little ditzy. Her greatest strength is her cutting wit; her greatest weakness is her chronic inability to get over her neuroses and, well, get a life.
Is it possible to write one of these books without bringing in a Prince Charming of sorts to save the heroine from her own mistakes? Maybe not. On page 5 of Downey's novel, the narrator is already ogling -- in Mass, yet! -- a character whom she dubs "Perfect Guy." Names are scarce in Hot and Bothered. The thirtysomething housewife heroine herself remains unnamed until the novel's last paragraph. Her kids, aged 7 and 14, are named, and so is her best friend Pip, a childless career woman with an insatiable appetite for red meat and younger men. But the narrator's too-smooth ex-husband is simply "Ex-Rat," a moniker he earned via his philandering both before and after the split. Her New Age-y mom's boyfriend is "Yoga Alien." "Queen Bean" is the narrator's name for the Boston brahmin whose dog she offers to walk on a whim; the woman later becomes her supervisor in the first job she's had since her early marriage. "Moonboy" is Queen Bean's grandson -- a beatific, nearly silent child who soon becomes an unofficial part of the narrator's family.
Did I mention that all three turn out to be related? I'm going to dub that plot twist "Bald Contrivance."
It should be clear from this summary that the narrator of Hot and Bothered is a comedian manquee who mines the world, and particularly her domestic world, for her material. Anyone who's ever been tempted to describe herself as a "desperate housewife" will get a kick out of Downey's down-and-dirty depiction of motherhood. This is a mom who, when her kids refuse to stop playing videogames, chucks the computer out the window. A mom so scatterbrained that her son gives her the thoughtful Mother's Day gift of a to-do list she can wear round her neck on a string. And here's how the narrator deals with her 7-year-old daughter's refusal to eat her breakfast: "I hand Demon Princess a protein bar made exclusively for women. Seeing that it's covered in chocolate, she eats it. Hope it balances future raging hormones." Is the woman unhinged, or is she some sort of subversive parenting genius in this age of yuppie perfectionism? You be the judge.
The novel has some touching scenes of parent-child interaction to balance the satire. But the narrator's kids never emerge as full-fledged characters. Like Pip, Ex-Rat and the narrator's kale-pushing mom, they're basically props for use in an extended comic monologue about one woman's flirtation with a nervous breakdown.
Downey slips in and out of the Bridget Jones telegraphic style, which involves the frequent dropping of subject nouns and articles. ("Must pay late fees on loads of books never read.") Her talent for one- and two-line zingers is more consistent. The narrator sums up Pip's boyfriend and partner in S & M sex-play thus: "Vegan boy does not like earth's creatures messed with. He works very hard to establish his chi while being spanked." Then there's the narrator's mom, who was "truly impossible as a mother" until the divorce from Ex-Rat. "Now she has become a valuable man-hating resource," the narrator gloats.
Quotable as it is, Hot and Bothered doesn't fare as well when one considers it as a complete novel. Each chapter covers a week in the heroine's life and is divided into brief vignettes with titles such as "Reality Check" and "Dinner Is Served." The decision to chop things up bite-sized reflects Downey's skill as a columnist. (She's written for Vermont Woman and the magazine Hip Mama.) But the format makes it difficult for her to depict a heroine developing organically from a woman who relies on talismans such as a pair of hot pink clogs to maintain her mental equilibrium to one who's more grounded and self-assured.
In fact, sometimes it's hard to see any real change taking place, as the narrator careens from one whim to the next, embracing each new life-plan with charming yet childish abandon. When she says, "I am finally speaking my truth," we know she'll be contradicting herself 100 pages down the line.
That's part of the novel's comic appeal. Still, it's frustrating to see Downey resorting to the infamous chick-lit device of using men -- not "perfect" men, maybe, but damned good ones -- to give the heroine ego boosts and soft landings. We all know that the models who hit on geeky guys in beer commercials are a male fantasy. The female version, spotted only in novels and romantic comedies, is the sensitive hunk who pops up and announces that he's loved the heroine since he first set eyes on her, even though she's a bit of a basket case and has never been particularly nice to him.
Maybe it's time to retire this cliche. Literary romance is more satisfying -- and funnier -- when it's as absurd as life. With this novel, Downey proves herself a good chronicler of those daily absurdities. She just needs to cut loose some of the heavier baggage of the genre.
From Hot and Bothered:
The kids are with Ex-Rat for the weekend and I have no idea what to do with myself. I walk around the house, checking things: doors, windows, stove. Feel like Woody Allen's mother. I make tea and drink it to the ticking of the clock in the empty kitchen. Everything gleams sterile. I wonder if it's possible to make the house any smaller and messier. It needs a lived-in look, not the current obsessive-compulsive vibe, which makes me feel like an unwelcome guest in my own house. It's all due to the neat-freak gene I inherited from my father, and to a New York decorator hired by Ex-Rat.
The decorator turned out to be a model-chic babe who put her soul into pretending to be his wife while I watched. The kitchen's restaurant-like steel, exposed brick, and large framed black-and-white photographs of erotically charged produce are all her invention.
"Men love kitchens," the decorator said. "A lot of women laugh when I say that, but I'm totally serious, they get totally turned on by the thought of a woman cooking. Maybe we should paint the walls this dusky rose color? Give it some feminine warmth. Men love rose. It reminds them of the soft recesses of a woman's body." She let me in on this carnal knowledge at eight in the morning, after I'd been through twelve hours of straight-out nursing followed by twenty-five minutes of sleep, as I banged pots around wearing a puked-on old hospital gown with a sanitary napkin the size of a truck between my thighs.
I finish my tea, check the stove again. Then again. Then I head upstairs, like an old junkie, knowing where I am going, full of shame as I already regret the tomorrow of it. Inside Ex-Rat's old closet, the stuff he left behind is still neatly folded on shelves or hung. I reach for my favorite T-shirt, which is kelly green and so threadbare that there are patches where I can see through it to the flesh of my fingertips. I hold it up to my face and inhale his scent. There is a shoebox full of notes from our first couple of years of marriage, when we were all love and lived in a shitty one-bedroom apartment. My old, scratchy cursive: "Honey pie, went to store to get lemons, pucker up bad boy -- be back lickity split. me OXOXO." "Brendan is teething, heading to co-op for clove oil -- will get that chocolate that you love." "Went to Laundromat -- can you put diapers out for horribly mean diaper service man? I'll love you forever and ever. Smooch."
I drag the comforter and a pillow from the bed, wrap myself, cocoonlike, and read on about happy years of errands.