You could call this novel “Bridget Jones meets The Nanny Diaries,” but that’s the kind of shorthand its author likes to lampoon
Bad Heir Day. By Wendy Holden. Plume, 339 pp., $13, paperback.
By Janice Harayda
Wendy Holden’s early novels are the perfect books to read when you have a champagne hangover. This is a compliment. Face it. When your head is pounding like the anvil in Il Trovatore, this is not the moment to pick up State of Denial and try to figure out what went wrong in Iraq. You need a book that’s as fizzy as a Kir Royale and just as delicious.
You could reread Bridget Jones’s Diary. Or you could pick up one of Holden’s first three comedies of manners – Simply Divine, Bad Heir Day, and Farm Fatale. A writer for Publishers Weekly called them “refreshing fare readers can turn to when they’re tired of lifeless Bridget clones.” And there’s some truth to this.
But it’s also true that – leaving the clones aide – Holden is the perhaps only English novelist whose comedies of unmarried manners can hold their own against Bridget Jones’s Diary. One reason for this is that like, Helen Fielding’s blockbuster, Holden’s books are always about more than whether or not the heroine will get her man. Fielding satirizes, among other things, the clash between the groups she calls Singletons and Smug Marrieds. Holden sends up the pretensions of the young and overprivileged — celebrities, aristocrats, private-school parents, and others. Both authors write in a breezy and irreverent voice full of pointed social commentary: They blame their heroines’ predicaments less on the women themselves than on the cultural forces that drive them to absurd behavior, and in Holden’s case there is more to it than that.
A critic for the British Esquire observed perceptively that Holden has restored the pun to literary respectability. She also takes aim at a broader range of targets most authors of light fiction, including Fielding. A former deputy editor of Tatler, Holden lampooned the world of the English glossies in her first novel, Simply Divine, which introduced a vain platinum-haired celebrity named Champagne D’Vyne, who is famous for being famous.
In her second novel, Bad Heir Day, Holden satirizes the intersecting realms of two British groups — the rear guard of the old aristocracy of birth and the shock troops new aristocracy of money who are replacing it. Her well-crafted plot turns on a young, would-be writer takes a job as a nanny for a London power couple and grows so desperate to escape it that she becomes engaged to the dull heir to a decrepit Scottish castle.
If this sounds like The Nanny Diaries with worse food and weather, you’re partly right. But the humor in Bad Heir Day is more barbed and over-the-top. At a planning meeting for a school fund-raising auction, a character wonders: “What on earth was the use of Caroline Hope-Stanley’s offer of a year’s supply of horse manure from their weekend place in Oxfordshire?” In a walk-on part, Champagne D’Vyne is as thick and unaware of it as ever. When someone asks if she’ll wear white at her wedding, Champagne replies, “God no. I thought Versace.” This is Holden at her best, and she holds onto her form throughout her third and best novel, Farm Fatale, which explores the collision between city and rural manners after a young couple trade their London lives for a place in the countryside.
After the first three books, Holden begins strip-mining her material. And her later novels like Gossip Hound and Azur Like It don’t come close to Simply Divine, Bad Heir Day, and Farm Fatale. Holden seems to know it and lately has switched gears and begun writing about young parents instead of single people. I have read only one of the more recent books, Wives of Bath, and although competently written, it lacks the swashbuckling verve of the early novels. So don’t be taken in by the similarity of their covers. In one of the most amusing passages in Bad Heir Day, Holden satirizes the “lucky war axes” owned by the Scottish heir who hopes to marry her heroine. Her first three novels are her war axes, and if we’re lucky, we’ll see more like them.
Best line: Holden sends up the decaying grandeur of a Scottish castle in a section about a wedding party: “Dampie Castle seemed to be entirely enveloped in a cloud. The windows of the dining room were long and elegant, even though the view outside bore a strong resemblance to that usually enjoyed by aeroplane passengers five minutes out of Gatwick. Nothing was visible apart from an ectoplasmic mist which pressed up against the panes and extended as far as the eye could see, which was not very far at all. The view inside, on the other hand, was pure old school patrician – long mahogany tables, towering bookcases, a vast armorial fireplace and several patricians of indeterminate purity …”
Worst line: On page 38, Holden tells us that her heroine’s employer “looked even older than her forty years.” On page 98, she says that the same woman’s nipples were “still standing proud after thirty-nine years on the planet.” Did she forget her character’s age?
Recommended if … you like Bridget Jones’s Diary and Allison Pearson’s I Don’t Know How She Does It.
Publisher: March 2001
FYI: Holden’s fiction has reached the No. 1 spot on the bestseller list in the Sunday Times of London.
© 2006 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
One-Minute Book Reviews is an independent literary blog created by Janice Harayda, who has been the book columnist for Glamour, the book editor of The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle. The site covers books by all kinds of people “from presidents and kings to the scum of the earth,” as Lily Tomlin’s Ernestine might say. But it focuses on achieving parity for groups of authors often slighted by other media, including women, poets, and the authors of books from overseas or small presses. At least 50 percent of all reviews cover books by women. Reviews typically alternate on a female author/male author basis except in weeks that include gift guides, round-ups, or other themed posts.
Janice Harayda does not accept free books or promotional materials from editors, publishers, literary agents, or authors of new and forthcoming books. No portion of this site may be reproduced in any form except for brief passages that do not violate copyright laws.
Publishers who use excerpts should quote: Janice Harayda, One-Minute Book Reviews, and may not identify Janice Harayda solely as the author of The Accidental Bride (St. Martins, 1999) or Manhattan on the Rocks (Sourcebooks, 2004). They may identify her as the author of those books if they also list the URL http://www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com. Newspapers and magazines that use the photograph must credit Michael Stahl. All material on this blog is copyrighted by Janice Harayda with all rights reserved.
Please visit www.janiceharayda.com for more information about The Accidental Bride and Manhattan on the Rocks.
Watch One-Minute Book Reviews for the forthcoming short list for the Delete Key Awards, which recognize the worst writing in books.