Those who've read Helen Fielding's Bridget Jones's Diary and its sequel must have wondered if the author could tell a similarly sharp and humorous story without the incomparable Bridget scribbling her disjointed journal entries. Cause Celeb, an earlier novel, is certainly different in style. It doesn't follow a diary format, it's not a running commentary about all crises experienced every five minutes, and it won't have you thinking in terms of acronyms and missing prepositions. V.g.
However, reading it, I did imagine some numbers in the tradition of Bridget's calorie counter. For instance. Laugh-out-loud moments: 27. Occasions when Rosie Richardson reminded me of Bridget: 12. Number of times the grade moved from B+ to A and back again: 15. Number of times it occurred to me that this book is in any way inferior to Bridget Jones's Diary: 0.
As a publicist for a big London publisher, Rosie Richardson is closely acquainted with famous novelists, playwrights, actors, and other celebrities. Inevitably, she gets into a disastrous relationship with one of them, the suave but unkind Oliver Marchant. Partly to forget him, she applies as a relief worker in Africa, where she eventually becomes the administrator of the Safila Camp in the fictional, civil war-torn country of Nambula.
Four years later, Rosie hears disturbing rumors of a locust plague in a nearby province, which threatens to send multitudes of starving refugees into their camp. Already, groups of them have been trickling in even as the camp's resources rapidly diminish. With the help of Robert O'Rourke, a sexy but no-nonsense American doctor, Rosie must find a way to prevent disaster in the face of the aid organizations' bureaucracy. Out of options, she takes on the wild idea of asking her celebrity acquaintances to perform a televised appeal for Nambula. But first, she has to confront her past - the shallow affluence she used to disdain, the supercilious, self-absorbed celebs, and ultimately, Oliver Marchant, whom she has often (and aptly) described as a "maniac."
The story is told in the first person, which is partly why it won't take long for Bridget fans to recognize in Rosie a very close precursor of Bridget. Both heroines have a predilection for debonair bastards, a childlike earnestness; a tendency to be on the wrong end of embarrassing social situations, and of course, an enviable ability to attract intense, gratifyingly reliable men. As the story switches from vignettes of Rosie's life in London to the current crisis in Safila, you see her grow from being confused and emotional, to finally being brave and decisive. She may typify the brokenhearted loser early in the book, but she is never pitiful in that role.
Fielding also grapples adroitly with complex topics. The apparent fluff - the life of the rich and famous, the highs and lows of Rosie's love life - creates a powerful irony set against such matters as mass starvation, plague, and war. Even as the celebs' idiosyncrasies make you roll your eyes, the author cunningly brings up many issues, including tokenism versus real help, the motivation of relief workers, and how the have-nots of the world perceive Western aid. The crisis described closely mirrors what happened in Ethiopia in 1984. Refreshingly, Fielding drives home her point without moralizing, and without making it a chore to read.
All this, and the book entertains immensely, too. The outrageous absurdities of Rosie's roller-coaster relationship with Oliver, the antics of the celebrities transplanted from their posh England nooks to the harsh desolation of Safila, and Rosie's philosophical observations about the interesting life she leads - all these make for delightful, laugh-out-loud moments. Readers are warned that they will be completely glued to this story for the one or two days it'll take to see if Rosie's wild venture will save the day.
My only complaint, as a fan of romance, is that Rosie and "O'Rourke" (the Mark Darcy of this book) don't spend enough time together. He's so compelling, drop the "O" in his surname and he could be a J.D. Robb hero; he's that sweet toward Rosie. The two of them certainly set off promising sparks that could have been a raging bonfire, if only they hadn't been required to run around preventing one famine-related disaster after another. They do share one tender interlude, a very subtle but evocative desert scene with only moonlight and each other for company. But they could use an epilogue to close the circle of their relationship.
Because of this quibble, I eventually settled on rating the book as less than a DIK. But despite that, Cause Celeb is a personal keeper. Reading about how Rosie fought for her cause has been both entertaining and enlightening for me, as it will probably be for Fielding fans who might secretly find Bridget Jones just a tad too pathetic.
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