BEFORE READING – PLEASE NOTE, SOME PLOT POINTS AND SPOILERS MAY BE REVEALED
Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’ Diary was one of the best-written books in the last twenty years. It was funny, and featured a flawed heroine readers sided with. The book’s smashing success inspired a so-so sequel, Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason, that while not as satisfying, still had solitary moments of pleasure that recalled the first book. Since The Edge of Reason‘s publication date in 1999, a lots happened for Fielding – her books were made into two smash hit films (the first one was nominated for an Academy Award), and Fielding wrote a couple other humorous novels, though none quite as successful or charming as Bridget Jones’ Diary. There was talk of a third installment in the series for quite some time, and many fans rejoiced when Bridget Jones: Mad About the Boy was finally released this year. Unfortunately, my joy quickly turned to disappointment as the third book is easily the weakest in the series.
The most controversial move – which was reported in the British tabloids – was Fielding’s decision to make Bridget a widow. Crusading human rights lawyer Mark Darcy dies in the ensuing years (which will make fan favorite Colin Firth’s participation in the film very difficult), and leaves Bridget alone with two small children. She is still dealing with her weight issues, but is also feeling the pangs of a midlife crisis. The title – a reference to the Cole Porter tune – refers to Bridget’s May-December romance, when she falls for a young hunk she meets on Twitter. As with the first two books, Bridget’s mom and her group of friend figure heavily in the plot, and the rakish Daniel Cleaver also puts in an appearance, though now in middle age, he comes off as a desperately sad and pathetic alcoholic, and is no longer the endearingly caddish Lothario.
And despite Fielding’s still strong grasp on comedy (she peppers the book with some one-liners that land beautifully), the story is a bit of a slog – in the earlier books, Bridget’s single status was funny because she was often the cause of her status: it was her combination of high-mindedness, coupled with her insecurity, that made her into a bundle of neuroses that endangered her relationships. In Mad About the Boy, we’re no longer allowed to laugh at Bridget’s self-defeating acts of romantic sabotage, because they’re intrinsically linked to Mark’s death; instead of it being funny that Bridget’s obsessed over her boyfriend’s less-than-punctual response on test message, it’s sad because we know that a lot of her fears of abandonment come from the trauma of surviving Mark’s death.
But the book isn’t all bad – and there are moments that truly shine, and that makes the book as a whole all the more disappointing because the potential of a great third entry is there. Bridget as a mom is a novel idea and it works – initially one would scoff at the idea of the flighty Bridget being responsible for the lives of others, but she does her mother as she does everything else – with reckless abandon, but with a lot of passion. She’s a great mum, and some of the novel’s best moments occur when she’s dealing with her precocious but sly kids. I also like that Fielding has given Bridget an ambitious career: she’s a struggling screenwriter, working with an indifferent film producer. In these scenes we see a peak of the old Bridget Jones at her best – smart, funny, but still operating with one foot in her mouth. Heroines work best when they are flawed and complicated, so long as they are not punching bags. And that’s why the novel doesn’t completely collapse on itself: because Fielding remembers to lace Bridget with dignity.
Unfortunately, none of these estimable virtues mask the fact that the book feels like a huge letdown. In trying to make Bridget Jones grow up, Fielding did something almost sacrilegious: she made her fictional universe seems dour and dull. It’s always a mistake to assume that when one grows up, one leaves behind all the funny, goofy, and lovely quirks of one’s youth – if anything, after a certain age, these idiosyncracies should be celebrated. Bridget Jones was a relatable character because we all have a little bit of a Bridget in us – the pie-eyed loner who wants more out of life, but just doesn’t know how to get at it. And in Mad About the Boy, Bridget ultimately gets what she wants out of her life, but it’s not much fun to read about it.