Discovering that there was a new Bridget Jones novel out was certainly a cause celeb for this reader; that was until I learned about the GBS – the Great Big Spoiler. Those of you who have read the book know what I am talking about – it was all over the media in the days leading up to and after the launch. Those of you who don’t know what I’m talking about, read no further please because I am about to reveal what has to be the worst kept secret in the literary world – that is, in this latest (and last, I assume – though Jones in her dotage might be hilarious – imagine Bridget in a nursing home?) book, fifty-one year old Bridget is a widow. Yep, that’s right folks, Mark Darcy, the human rights lawyer and man who swept singleton Bridget and the rest of us off our feet is dead. Our Bridget Jones, 133lb (v.g), texting, sexting, tweeting (or twunking), alcohol-unit-recording diarist is a widow with two adorable children to raise all by her v. lonely self.
Reeling at first when this was revealed, I nonetheless wanted to know how BJ, or Mrs Darcy, was coping and what sort of a mother she’s turned out to be and what curlies life would throw at her this time. Most importantly, I wanted to know if she could possibly find love again after Darcy – a question, it turns out, that’s pretty much foremost in Bridget’s mind as well. That, her kids, weight, body, dating, dating websites, social media, school, school teachers, her screenplay (a modern retake on Henrik Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler which Bridget misspells Gabbler and believes is written by Anton Chekov) and the trials and tribulations of her constantly loyal friends, are all playing on Bridget’s mind, a mind that cannot help but dwell on her adored Darcy and how much she misses him….
So, when Bridget begins dating a much younger man, the handsome, smart and very funny Roxster, it looks like she’s slowly getting her act together again – but this is Bridget and it is very, very slow and never really accomplished. Being a “cougar” doesn’t sit quite right with her, and dating turns out to be more complicated than she first thought and, though people invent profiles on sites like OKCupid in the hope of luring or finding someone, there’s also a degree of façade-erecting going on in real life too and Bridget isn’t sure she can maintain it, especially as the demands from the film production company grow, her kids needs outweigh her own, and criticism of her lifestyle and choices start coming from all sorts of quarters.
Perhaps love is a once in a lifetime thing and middle-aged and ageing Bridget has had her quota? Will she be content being a single mum? Does she really need a man in her life when she has such marvellous friends? These are the kinds of questions, among others, the novel poses and, fortunately for this reader at least, I wanted to see answered. The good news is they are and in ways that are often predictable, but also delightful and unexpected.
I confess, after reading quite severe criticism of the book (often written by people who, learning of Darcy’s demise didn’t even read the novel but, for some reason, thought it was appropriate to rate in one star – puhleez! Or, in Bridget’s new and aggravating parlance, Gaah! What is it with that? Or by some reviewers who seemed to think that Fielding should have written something equivalent to the likes of Virginia Woolf’s literary creations or George Eliot’s and take her to task for not making Bridget more complex or confident without a man – this is BJ we’re talking about! I was so cross, I wrote a column about it), I didn’t have high expectations. But, there is a certain comfort returning to the life of a woman who, in many ways defined a specific “post-feminism” of the nineties, was a child of “Cosmopolitan culture” and coined terms like “Smug marrieds” and emotional F*$kwittage and “singletons.” I loved discovering how she had and hadn’t matured. And, while many of the tropes that appeared in the first two Bridget Jones’ books reappear here, there was a certain satisfaction in that as well. After all, didn’t we all, like Darcy, want Bridget “Just the way she (is)”? Yes, she’s older, but not necessarily any wiser, though she is a wonderful mother who loves her kids and whose heart has always been (and still is) in the right place.
Using Bridget as a vehicle, Fielding offers some scathing and very funny observations about motherhood, pretentious kids, helicopter parents, the mummy mafia, ageing, online dating, social media and plethora of other contemporary phenomena that are as frustrating and mind-numbing as they are fun to engage in and with.
Many of the old characters from the first novels reappear: Tom, Jude, Woney and her oblivious husband, and Daniel Cleaver (just to name a few) and there’s a certain pleasure in observing how they’ve turned out and what their take on life is twenty years on as well. New characters also appear and pepper the novel in light and not so light ways, hovering around and careening into Bridget in order to further her search – not so much for Mr Right – she’s had him, but for someone to share her life and responsibilities with, male and female.
This is the heart of the book – the fact that as human beings, we’re often most fulfilled by being with others – loving, caring, sharing and all that a relationship entails – the good bad and ugly. There are some very poignant moments in this novel and while I laughed and rolled my eyes (and sometimes not in a good way – the fartage stuff was a bit OTT after a while and the “Gaahs” drove me nuts), I also cried. Yes, I shed a tear over Bridget and her gorgeous kids as well as her thwarted dreams and her attempt to rebuild after having everything implode in such a horrid way.
Mad About the Boy doesn’t pretend to answer everything or aim to be regarded as some literary zeitgeist in the way BDJ’s Diary was (which was never intentioned but happened organically as people responded to Jones) nor is it a blueprint for middle-age, though some reviewers seem to talk about it this way – but it is a light and warm-hearted read. I felt like I was revisiting old friends, sort of like a school reunion but better. I don’t know if being the age Bridget is now helped, but it didn’t hurt either.
I have to add that one of my favourite parts of the book was a scene involving a near tragedy at the children’s school. Heroes are made that night and, one of the teachers, instead of calling for counselling and mollycoddling the kids (who are all fine) and parents, offers a different kind of comfort by acknowledging their resilience and capability in the event of an almost tragedy. He tells the shell-shocked parents and excited kids to go home and celebrate (not sook). I wanted to cheer when I read this and wish there could be more of it. In many ways, sadly, this was probably the greatest piece of fiction in the book – especially in a day an age where we’re so ready to lay claim to “victim” status and all the (negative) attention that entails.
Don’t be put off by the criticisms, judge Mad About the Boy and this chapter in Bridget’s life for yourselves – take what joy or pain you can from it. Like me, you might be very pleasantly surprised.