In courtship, self-help helps those who help themselves

BRIDGET JONES: THE EDGE OF REASON By Helen Fielding Viking 338 pp., $24.95

Girl meets boy, falls in love, and lives fabulous, romantic life, whizzing off to ridiculously exotic places where they even eat breakfast by candlelight. You know the scenario.

Only it almost never happens that way. Not in real life, at least. And especially not in the world of Men Who Can't Commit that Bridget Jones inhabits.

The thirtysomething Londoner's road from Singleton to Smug Married - as she brands the illusive club of the wedded - is hilariously tortuous. And we get to feel every bump along the way.

"Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason" is Helen Fielding's second foray into the dating wilderness of Bridget's life, and it pokes fun at the absurdities and vulnerabilities of the whole ritual.

Aided by self-help books and a liberal amount of alcohol and cigarettes, Bridget blunders her way through relationships analyzing every blink and mumble.

We meet her this time embarking on a new relationship with the deliciously gallant Mark Darcy. Her diary entries record her dreamy musings about the intimate moments they'll share.... Only to be rudely interrupted by the boring facts of daily life. That fabulous breakfast of eggs Benedict she's going to prepare for her beau does actually require a modicum of culinary skill and, of course, a few basic ingredients - such as eggs.

But Bridget muddles through, desperate to be what she thinks Mark wants her to be, based on her close reading of such relevant self-help books as "Why Men Feel They Want What They Think They Want." As she asks rhetorically, "Where else is one to turn for spiritual guidance to deal with problems of modern age?"

Even so, there is trouble in paradise. Rebecca, a tall lithe blonde with swingy hair is trying to snag Mark from what she considers his inept, middle-class girlfriend. Bridget sees the trick, but Mark seems to play along, accepting Rebecca's invitations and constant attention.

Chapter 3: "Doooom!"

As misunderstandings thick-en and exhaustive self-help analysis only befogs things further, Mark and Bridget reluctantly part, both confused about why.

Bridget is devastated. Her girlfriends instantly rally to the cause, rushing round to her apartment armed with supplies, the requisite "Pride and Prejudice" video, and books like "Through Love and Loss to Self-Esteem" and "How to Heal the Hurt by Hating."

She desperately wants to call and talk things through with him, but is well-read enough to know that this is a complete dating no-no. So she sits it out, follows "The Rules," and wonders if "the whole hideous game of bluff and double-bluff with men" is not all slightly mad somehow.

Even her mother, a manic, self-absorbed, class-conscious busybody, can see the advantages of straight-forward communication.

"The Edge of Reason" subtitle comes more sharply into focus as the book progresses. Fielding takes us into the inner sanctum of girl-talk, where Singletons try to perfect the troublingly complex art of how to attract men while playing hard to get.

Add to this the distortions of self-help, adhered to like a religion, and you end up with a comedy of errors.

Yet for all Bridget's misguidedness, it's the familiarity of her predicaments that make her so endearing. We laugh, but not without a hint of self-knowledge.

* Susan Llewelyn Leach is on the Monitor staff.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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