Much of my literary reading tends to be, well, depressing, so I aerated my mind with Sophie Kinsella’s Shopaholic books last week. I have now read the entire series, which, according to the blurb on the last book Shopaholic and Baby, has sold over seven million copies. I can see why–Kinsella’s creation is a marvel of cleverness; it’s almost as though the lead character was crafted in response to a focus group session on friendship. Becky Bloomwood (the ‘shopaholic’) is loyal and fun and generous to a fault and exudes kindness from every porcelained pore. Her superpower is niceness.
Against all this goodness, Becky’s abandoned, uncontrolled consumerism is rendered minor–a weakness rather than a vice. No doubt the kind of person who disapproves of Becky’s life finds her furniture cruising the streets on garbage pick-up day and washes her hair with Tide. Very cleverly done indeed; the reading public would call Becky a consumer whore if Kinsella had made her a smidgen less appealing. (The author, of course, fails to mention there’s an alternative to Becky’s rampant materialism that is not joyless penny-pinching, but moderation in a heroine does not sell chick-lit novels.)
Interestingly, while Kinsella’s work obviously belongs to the category of chick-lit, neither romance nor the heroine’s appearance (two pillars of the genre) matter much in the series. Becky does not have a weight fetish, and while she’s pretty, the latter information is provided casually by the author, as though it doesn’t matter to the story. Also, there’s no physical description of Becky–no color of the hair or eyes, no particulars as to height or dress size–all of which I see as a clever piece of literary engineering designed to make readers identify even more with Becky. And while there is a man in the form of Becky’s boyfriend-turned-husband Luke, he isn’t fully realized as a character, and even the voice-of-sanity role that he sporadically occupies in the first three books is usurped by Becky’s anti-consumerist sister Jess by the fourth book of the series.
But what I find really intriguing about the series is that Kinsella is fully aware of the darker side of Becky’s materialism. Tongue-in-cheek references to Becky’s stupidity in spending bundles of cash for brand-name merchandise run through the novels; in Shopaholic and Baby, for instance, Jess wears a skirt Becky thinks comes from a top label, but actually costs a few cents, and is made by worker’s co-operative in Guatemala, if I remember correctly.
I hence think the series is actually rather subversive–while pretending to extol the virtues of unbridled aquisitiveness, Kinsella keeps sneaking in reminders of the dangers of such materialism. While there’s no mention of sweatshops or fair trade, Becky’s sense of worth, for all her shopping excesses, never comes from her shoes or handbag; she may orgasm in public over a scarf, but you know she’d choose the old family photos if her house caught fire. While her life choices as a Shopaholic are validated–Becky lands a successful career, rich and handsome husband, and a perfect life in London thanks (at least in part) to her shopping habit–it seems clear to me Kinsella has Becky’s happiness flow from her relationships rather than her possessions. According to Kinsella’s website, a film of the novels will be out next year; please, let it be more than an excuse for flagrant product placements, for I do want to see it.