Bridget Jones: Mad About the Boy by Helen Fielding (Jonathan Cape – 10 October 2013)
In my early teens I went through an obscure-sequels phase. I was consumed by an insatiable desire to find out what happened next to all of my favourite fictional characters…what happened when they grew up, got married, had children? It was a thrilling discovery each time I found some new instalment while trawling the library shelves. I read the Little Women sequels (not just Good Wives but Jo’s Boys and Little Men too), What Katy Did at School, What Katy Did Next, and all about Anne of Green Gables’s interminably moralistic children. I read the sequel to Pollyanna—I can’t remember what happens to her but I suspect she made the best of it, and I read many an attempted sequel to Pride and Prejudice by various authors.
There is a reason why these continuations are obscure and often not as successful as the original story. (There are of course exceptions to every rule; The Godfather 2 apparently, Toy Story 2, Madagascar 3.) There is also a reason why love stories end with the wedding—no one wants to see the happy couple bickering over breakfast ten years later. And how much more is at stake when the sequel in question has been eagerly awaited for many years. (It’s been almost fifteen years since the original sequel, The Edge of Reason, was published.) There’s just too much pressure; all that expectation is bound to end in disappointment and Mad About the Boy has been one of the most anticipated books of the year.
Whether you liked the book or not, Bridget Jones’s Diary was a phenomenon—the Fifty Shades of the nineties. It was not just a bestseller in its publication year (1996)—it was also the top selling fiction book of the decade in Britain (according to Jimmy Carr’s Big Fat Quiz of the 90’s). There was just something about Bridget that resonated with readers. The movie version took the Bridget brand on to a whole new audience and was brilliantly cast with Renee Zellweger sacrificing her figure for the part and doing a flawless accent, with Mr Darcy as Mark Darcy naturally, and the sappy rom-com favourite Hugh Grant reinvented as the devilish Daniel Cleaver.
Helen Fielding’s great strength lies in her ability to inspire empathy. A whole generation of women, despite their age and marital status, became Bridget Jones. Hadley Freeman wrote a great article in the Guardian last week called ‘Why do we expect so much from Bridget Jones?’ She is, after all, just a fictional character—not a feminist icon or role model for single women. Yet I too became Bridget Jones—at nineteen inexplicably fearing that I might be single for the rest of my life, die alone and be eaten by Alsatians. As you do. (In fact I hold Helen Fielding partially responsible for the fact that I got married at twenty-one.) Bridget Jones is a caricature—she is our worst-case scenario in any potentially embarrassing situation, but also a paragon of optimism; allowing us to believe that we too might stumble upon some out-of-the-blue happy ending one day.
Bridget Jones: Mad About the Boy finds Bridget a 50-year-old widow, trying to cope with two young children and a thirty-year-old toyboy while writing a screenplay—a modernised version of “Hedda Gabbler by Chekov”(sic)—and attempting to increase her Twitter followers. As was revealed a week before the launch, to much wailing and gnashing of teeth, Helen Fielding has killed off Mark Darcy. Of course she had to kill him—a Mr & Mrs Darcy tableau of smug middle-aged marriedness would have been an awful read, but likewise no one wanted to see Bridget’s happy ending turn sour and end in divorce. Killing him off was the only way to save the relationship. In fact, what better way to idealise him into posterity in all his priggish, cardboard perfection?
The book is set in 2013 so there are plenty of topical jokes about the weather, fashion and Gwynyth Paltrow that still reflect the style influence of the original column format. Bridget also has a new social situation to negotiate—the school gate—and this adds a fun new dimension. Mad About the Boy is a funny and nostalgic romp. Bridget gets in as many ridiculous scrapes, is as annoying and as endearing as ever and gets her romantic happy ending within a calendar year, as we would expect. (Sorry – did I spoil that for you?) It is also terribly sad though. Helen Fielding writes Bridget’s grief with a sensitive hand and it feels authentic. In contrast, her patched-up happy ending doesn’t. At one point I even became convinced that Darcy was going to come back from the dead and reveal that he’d been a prisoner of war all this time—Homeland-style. He doesn’t. (Another spoiler there. Sorry!) Apart from her grief Bridget has not changed much though, and that in itself is a little sad.
As a fan it is sometimes best to let our literary heroes and heroines be. Ultimately ‘finding out what happened’ is just not worth it. What’s next? Bridget in her 80’s negotiating the dangerous waters of nursing home dating? We can’t blame Helen Fielding and we can’t blame Bridget. What did we expect? Bridget got older—perhaps we’ve got older too? And who wants to be reminded of that…