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10th December
2009
written by Steph
Well, I'm sick of Jennifer Johnson, so there!

Well, I'm sick of Jennifer Johnson, so there!

The reading slump continues, I’m afraid.  My brain has just been so g-d tired the past few weeks that I’ve been exceedingly picky about what I can/cannot read and most books in my TBR stack haven’t even been making it off the pile before I decide to hold off on them until later.  There’s nothing like the library to help make up your mind, however, as looming due dates help certain books wedge their way into your field of view; with lengthy queues on most new releases many of them wind up being “now or never” reads.  Jennifer Johnson... wound up being one such read. I first read about this book over at the Girl Detective’s blog.  Based on the cover I probably wouldn’t have given it much consideration, but her review convinced me that this was something other than your run-of-the-mill chick lit, and actually manages to pull of something relatively cool with the genre, so I thought I would give it a go.  The basic premise is that Jennifer is single and miserable, working in a lame copyrwriting job for a local department store, where she has a passive aggressive boss and the only thing getting her through the day is her gay pal, Christopher, and the Cinnabon girl in the foodcourt.  Her forrays into online dating have only led to more pain, and to add insult to injury her sister and her ex-boyfriend are both getting married on Valentine’s Day.  Just when she thinks things can’t get any worse, Brad Keller, who just happens to be the son of the man who is president of the department store where she works, waltzes into her life and actually appears interested in her!  All of a sudden, Jennifer is getting exactly what she wants… but at what cost? So, right off the bat, I have to tell all of you that I really didn’t like this book very much at all.  It really didn’t have anything to do with it being chicklit, because as I've said, while I’m not really a connoisseur when it comes to the genre, I have nothing against it and I am able to temper my expectations appropriately.  My brain has been so mushy lately that a rollicking, fast-paced read was probably exactly what I needed.  But this book… while definitely not your prototypical chicklit in most respects, it was not all that enjoyable either.  But before I get into the whys of it all, I will say that I didn’t exactly feel this was breaking the mold in many respects, either.  Many of the old tropes are there (single lady, unhappy with her job, gay best friends, family that doesn’t get her, just desperately wants to be married), and in terms of the writing, the book reads a lot like what you’d expect from the genre. But what sets it apart is how ANGRY it is.  This book is about Bridget Jones, if Bridget Jones had anger management problems, along with a heavy reliance on alcohol and prescription medications.  From the very start, I think it’s pretty clear that the reason Jennifer is single is not because she is a size 10 (is this really fat nowadays?), but rather because she has horrific self-esteem problems that manifest in her being a charmless, bitter, mean and angry beyotch.  Seriously.  She’s so self-absorbed and while some readers maybe would find her TMI insights heartwrenchingly candid and her judgments and thoughts about those around her tartly perspicacious, I just found her pathetic and dour.  This is not a girl you would want to be friends with, mostly because she has lost all perspective and her sense of humor and is just a nasty and hostile individual.  Sure she goes on some pretty terrible dates, but many of the bad situations she finds herself in (including some of the dates) are largely due to her own bad behavior, and so there I can give her little sympathy. Not all of her behavior is ridiculous and the stuff of utter fantasy, as in many ways during her relationship with Brad (both beforehand and during) saw echoes of friends of my own, generally when she was acting woefully insecure and trying to figure out the male mind, so there are kernels of truth there.  But let’s be clear: Jennifer is an awful human being, whereas my many friends are NOT.  I get upset when my friends feel they’re being dicked around by some dude or have a rough day at work, because they are good people who deserve to be happy… Jennifer does not. I don’t know.  Does writing a chick lit novel about all of the same stuff but this time from a seriously vitriolic standpoint turn the genre on its ear?  In my mind, that’s not really enough, and Jennifer was just SO angry and poisonous that I felt this was kind of a huge flaw, because while she doesn’t have that chirpy tone that many of these books do, who wants to read a book about someone so hateful?  How are we supposed to root for her?  And say that part of this book is about discovering that the things you always dreamed of are perhaps not all they’re cracked up to be, and maybe Prince Charming isn’t actually all that charming… how are we supposed to care, when: a) this is actually the foundation of most chick lit novels, as they all tend to be about the bait and switch, in which the heroine spends the greater part of the book chasing some cad, only to find out the right guy was right there in front of her the whole time; and b) Jennifer is so wretched that when bad things befall her, you kind of just shrug and think she’s brought it upon herself and kind of deserves all the nasty stuff coming her way? Ick.  This book is just really pretty toxic, and while not every book needs to be feel-good, do we want books that are actively feel-bad?  You know, books that make you stick with an obnoxious hag for 300 pages?  I kept waiting for a shocking twist that would turn things around, some kind of epiphany that would redeem Jennifer and possibly shock/surprise/delight me… but it never happened.  Is the ending unexpected? I guess so, given the way these sort of books generally go, but it just didn’t do much for me.  It was just the disgusting maraschino cherry (which I HATE!) on the top of something that’s been left in the oven and is simply the charred antithesis of a cake. Many people on GoodReads remarked that they found the book really funny, and I can only say that I feel anyone who laughs at this book would more likely cackle, because it is so bad.  I snorted a few times at some of the things gay pal Christopher snots off  at Jennifer (he was the one character I related to… I’m not sure what that says about me…), but mostly I felt like McElhatton feels that girls being mean/potty-mouthed/vulgar is comedy gold, and… it’s not.  Don’t get me wrong, I know from sassy, snarky ladies – ain’t nothing wrong with that – but snarky is not the same as cruel.  Also, a strange thing to take offense with, I suppose, but at least three times throughout the novel, Jennifer will refer to something as being "retarded", and that just really bugged me.  I wasn't clutching at my pearls and getting the vapors over this, but her repeated denigration of things as "retarded" made me think she wasn't all that articulate for someone who majored in creative writing, and it just made her seem all the less self-aware to me. I can’t in good conscience recommend this book for anyone, simply because I feel like it’s all so bleak and full of such black, sinister emotions.  Maybe some see it is a kick-ass cautionary tale, or maybe some genuinely thought Jennifer was groovy… I don’t know.  I just know this book was tiring, because who enjoys spending time with someone so angry and full of hate, and who feels good afterward?  Maybe you (I hope not!), but certainly not me.  An interesting exercise, I suppose, but in the end I felt that McElhatton manages to somehow both do not enough to defy genre conventions, while also going too far.  A tricky proposition, I realize, but bottom line?  I’ll take Bridget and her chardonnay over Jennifer and her Lunesta any day. Rating: 1 out of 5

13 Comments

  1. 12/10/2009

    That infuriates me that a size 10 is supposed to be “fat.” The “retarded” thing would also be a book killer for me.

    One thing I always wonder with obnoxious characters: did the author write them to be obnoxious, or did the author think the character was not obnoxious?

  2. 12/10/2009

    Ugh. Size 10 is definitely not fat.

    I actually think that cover is cute, but then am a little leery of authors I’ve never heard of before. Thanks for the warning! I’m not ashamed to admit I don’t enjoy chick lit, particularly ones with obnoxious protagonists.

    Although, I have been reading an author (Rawi Hage) who, in his previous two books, have angry characters (a cause for some readers not to like them), but I loved. But their anger I presume is quite different from Jennifer’s.

    On another note, have you read Zoe Heller’s Notes on a Scandal? I’ve just finished reading it and thought it might be something you’d like. It reminded me a little of Coetzee’s Disgrace. Different, but absorbing and definite pageturners in the same sense (and both about a scandal). Characterization seems absolutely opposite from the Jennifer Johnson book.

  3. 12/10/2009

    @ rhapsody: I always took issues with the Bridge Jones books for the same “but that’s not really fat!” issue, but here it was taken to a whole new level because most of the stuff in Bridget seems to be in her mind, but in this book, male characters actually tell Jennifer that she should lose some weight! Horrible!
    I have no idea what McElhatton’s intentions were with Jennifer – sometimes I think authors purposefully intend for their characters to be obnoxious, but there was so much messed up stuff going on that I really don’t know if I was supposed to dislike Jen as much as I did!
     
    @ claire: I like the cover too, the only reason I was put off is because it was clearly chicklit, and I don’t read much of it! Perhaps this is why?
    There are a few books I’ve read with objectionable main characters, but I’m not sure if I’ve read any books that were quite this bitter/angry… I wonder how I would respond to Hage’s books… perhaps this is something I’ll have to test in the future!
    Thanks for the recommendation of Notes on a Scandal! I haven’t read it, but I’ve heard the movie is good! 😉 I will certainly keep my eyes peeled!

  4. 12/10/2009

    Steph, I second the recommendation for Notes on A Scandal. I read it a couple of years ago and really thought it was a very enveloping read. It really pricked my emotions in a way that was a bit unsettling. And as for this book, oh boy! I am definitely not the audience for angry chick-lit. From your description, the main character sounds like a real shrew, and I would really hate having to read a whole book full of that. I really hope you find a great read for yourself soon, as it seems things have been a bit lackluster in the reading department for awhile now.

  5. 12/10/2009

    Nice to see people recommending Notes on a Scandal. It’s on my overcrowded TBR bookcase. Maybe I’ll move it up.

    But, oh dear, this book sounds terrible. As a single woman in her late 30s, I can’t help but get aggravated by how difficult it is to find books about single women (particularly older ones) who aren’t either ridiculously dizzy or angry and unpleasant. I’ll pass on this one for sure. Sounds like it would make *me* angry and unpleasant!

  6. i love your ability to skewer a book in an erudite fashion. instead of just ranting about how much you hated it, you give clear reasoning why. you don’t couch your feelings and that’s why i will always take your book recs–you’re honest and have integrity!

    the one thing i did like about this book is the creepy cover!

  7. 12/14/2009

    @ zibilee: Another person for Notes on a Scandal! I have a feeling this book will be featured on S&TI! in 2010… 😉 And I can’t wait to get out of this reading rut! Sooner rather than later, please!
     
    @ Teresa: I don’t get the characterization of angry/pathetic/30-something women either… I really don’t get why fiction marketed at women has to portray the sex in such a shallow, hopeless way. This was probably the most unpleasant example of the genre I’ve read, but certainly many of the problems here are not wholly unique to this book.
     
    @ nat: I’m sure I have posted “rant reviews” before, but I do always try to offer some perspective if I’m going to be spewing vitriol. Some books deserve a severe lashing! But I don’t ever “pimp out” a book if I didn’t like it, because well, I guess I don’t feel obligated to like every book I read. I think it’s the rare book that doesn’t have at least something going for it, and I do always try to point those things out, but if I thought a book was more bad then good, you can count on me to say so!

  8. 12/14/2009

    Well, one good thing came out of this 300-page journey with an obnoxious hag — your hilarious review!

    I second (fourth?) the nom of NOTES ON A SCANDAL for your reading list, if you want to read a book that’s unsettling in a good way. You’re welcome to borrow my copy.

    p.s. I too loathe maraschino cherries.

  9. 12/15/2009

    @ Trisha: Ha! Glad that my pain wound up being your pleasure! And I think I will tackle NOTES in the new year, so I’ll let you know if I’m in need of a copy!

    And yes, maraschino cherries are the WORST!

  10. Meg
    12/16/2009

    “From the very start, I think it’s pretty clear that the reason Jennifer is single is not because she is a size 10 (is this really fat nowadays?), but rather because she has horrific self-esteem problems that manifest in her being a charmless, bitter, mean and angry beyotch.”

    I literally laughed out loud at that — and I’m sure I would agree with you! So many characters in chick lit — or just general fiction — seem to live in a dream world where life kicks them repeatedly just because life sucks; there’s rarely any acknowledgment that they, you know, suck as people. I think I’ll skip this one! I wasn’t fond of McElhatton’s Pretty Little Mistakes, either. Boring and depressing!

  11. 12/17/2009

    @ Meg: You’re right that so much of chick lit seems to hinge up on this random twist of Fate in which things suddenly begin to go better for the character, rather than a change that is internally motivated. Not really sure why that is; I think I’d find it a lot more rewarding if the heroines had moments where they realized they were being ninnies! Based on your take on McElhatton’s debut, I don’t think I’ll be seeking that one out any time soon!

  12. […] book I enjoyed least but finished (and which I gave the lowest rating, the dreaded 1 out of 5) was Jennifer Johnson is Sick of Being Single by Heather McElhatton, which I found hateful and not nearly fun enough given its chick lit roots.  That said, I also was […]

  13. 01/07/2010

    Never knew there was such a thing as angry chick-lit…well, you learn something new everyday. Today, I learn to run not walk away from this book.

    Thanks for the honest review.

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