Jenny Colgan has written some of my very favorite novels but sometimes a book and a reviewer just aren’t right for each other and such was the case with me and Ms. Colgan’s West End Girls. This reissue of one of her older works (from 2006) simply didn’t enamor me the way many of her newer volumes do.
Lizzie and Penny Berry are twins but they are as different as they can be – at least on the surface. Penny is blonde, thin, and gorgeous. She’s working as a waitress until she catches a rich husband, hopefully one so besotted with her that he will forget the word “prenup” even exists. Lizzie prefers the quiet life; she mostly hangs out with her mother, has one friend with whom she discusses cats, and works in an office in a dead end job. Or she did – she is let go due to the simple fact that the job she does is no longer necessary. As luck would have it, Penny manages to insult a customer and get sacked on the same day, so they are jobless together.
This is all just karma though (or deus ex machina , take your pick). It turns out the elderly, annoying grandmother they had all but forgotten about needs a flat sitter for her place in Chelsea and feels the girls would be ideal for the job. They agree – until they arrive and realize that the flat is a dump and they will spend every night in imminent danger of being buried under years of accumulated empty milk bottles, old newspapers and chipped china.
They are able to clear a path between their rooms and the bathroom and decide to reward such a herculean effort with a job hunt. The ensuing – sorta – hilarity results in Lizzie finding work at a posh sandwich shop and Penny’s beauty earning her a position with a drunken gallery owner. They celebrate their success by going to a club where Penny wins a “tits out” contest, and gets into a fight with another contestant, Lizzie insults her boss, and the whole thing is captured by paparazzi and put in a gossip rag. And that pretty much sets the tone for the rest of the tale.
I could see myself laughing hysterically over all of this but something about the writing just never elevates it to the point of funny. Part of that might have been the mean streak running through the story. At one point Lizzie’s clothes are said to make her “look retarded.” At another, her boss Georges is accused of being “a retard”. Nice language.
Weight is also a big issue in the tale. If your idea of a good time isn’t hearing someone be belittled for their weight, or guilted over it, or made the brunt of jokes as a result of it, this book probably isn’t for you. The big romantic denouement at the end of the story includes the following paragraph, which every woman wants to hear:
“When I was you know, fat and a bit spotty and stuff . . . did you like me then?”
“Of course I like you. I think you are very nice girl. But when you become beautiful. . . That is when I fall in love with you. I cannot help myself, I am a man, and I love beautiful things. “
The hero does go on to say he will love Lizzie forever, even if she does gain weight later on, but alas the damage was done for me by that point. Penny’s big moment with her hero isn’t much better.
The good news is that the prose isn’t bad, some very minor life lessons are learned, each girl gains a bit of depth to her character and the heroes are 90% charming. The author only turned them into uncharacteristic jerks when it helped move her plot forward, which was a real shame since they were the best part of the tale otherwise.
Humor is subjective and it is entirely possible that others will find the juvenile high-jinks and endless fat jokes charmingly entertaining and amusing but I did not, which made finishing West End Girls more of a chore than a pleasure. If you are a die-hard fan of Ms. Colgan and simply must read everything she writes, you could to give this a go. If you miss the chick lit era and want to relive its drunken, snarky heyday, this might be for you. If neither of those two statements define you, definitely give this one a pass – but instead, try Meet Me at the Cupcake Cafe, Rosie Hopkins or Christmas at the Little Beach Street Bakery. They are lovely books which serve as a testament to this author’s tremendous talent.
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