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Helen Fieldings‘ off-the-wall Imagination

Nancy Sundstrom - July 1st, 2004
In general, book reviewers tend to gravitate toward and steer other readers on to works of quality, ones that merit a solid recommendation and are worth plunking down your hard-earned dollars for or giving up spare precious time to enjoy.
There’s a flip side to that coin, though, as is the case with a seriously disappointing and sometimes even offensively bad new book from Helen Fielding that was expected to be one of the hot, bestselling beach reads of 2004. Consider this review a warning. In the case of Fielding’s “Olivia Joules and the Overactive Imagination,” just say no. 
Yikes. This book is just a mess. Fielding is actually a very good and funny writer who has virtually set the standard for the chick-lit genre with seminal works like her two “Bridget Jones” novels. Because of her pop-ularity and success, many will undoubtedly buy this book automatically, but what lurks inside is almost an anti-Bridget Jones tome that, at best, just doesn’t work. At worst, it is in horribly bad taste as it attempts to make light comic fluff out of homeland terror alerts, Islamic extremists and the war in Iraq, something that seems grossly inappropriate in light of our real-life tragedies and struggles with those issues.
The ludicrous plot, which seems to be fashioned in some kind of homage to Ian Fleming and his legendary 007 series, involves Olivia Joules, a globetrotting writer who has been demoted from the international news section of the Sunday Times down to the style pages due to her wildly over-imaginative writing style.
In the first chapter, “London,” Fielding introduces us to Olivia and boss Barry, who are debating the merits of her journalistic abilities:

“The problem with you, Olivia, is that you have an overactive imagination.”
“I don’t,” said Olivia Joules indignantly.
Barry Wilkinson, foreign editor of the Sunday Times, leaned back in his chair, trying to hold in his paunch, staring over his half-moon glasses at the disgruntled little figure before him, and thinking: And you’re too damned cute.
“What about your story about the cloud of giant, fanged locusts pancaking down on Ethiopia, blotting out the sun?” he said.
“It was the Sudan.”
Barry sighed heavily. “We sent you all the way out there and all you came up with was two grasshoppers in a polythene bag.”
“But there was a locust cloud. It was just that it had flown off to Chad. They were supposed to be roosting. Anyway, I got you the story about the animals starving in the zoo.”
“Olivia, it was one warthog — and he looked quite porky to me.”
“Well, I would have got you an interview with the fundamentalist women and a cross amputee if you hadn’t made me come back.”
“The birth of Posh and Becks’s new baby you were sent to cover live for BSkyB?”
“That wasn’t hard news.”
“Thank God.”
“I certainly didn’t imagine anything there.”
“No. But nor did you say anything for the first ten seconds. You stared around like a simpleton, fiddling with your hair live on air, then suddenly yelled, ‘The baby hasn’t been born yet, but it’s all very exciting. Now back to the studio.’”
“That wasn’t my fault. The floor manager didn’t cue me because there was a man trying to get into the shot with ‘I’m a Royal Love Child’ written on his naked paunch.”
Wearily, Barry leafed through the pile of press releases on his desk. “Listen, lovey…”
Olivia quivered. One of these days she would call him lovey and see how he liked it.
“…you’re a good writer, you’re very observant and intuitive and, as I say, extremely imaginative, and we feel on the Sunday Times, in a freelancer, those qualities are better suited to the Style section than the news pages.”
“You mean the shallow end rather than the deep end?”
“There’s nothing shallow about style, baby.” Olivia laughed.
“I can’t believe you just said that.” Barry started laughing as well.
“Look,” he said, fishing out a press release from a cosmetics company, “if you really want to travel, there’s a celebrity launch in Miami next week for some — perfume? — face cream.”
“A face-cream launch,” said Olivia dully
“J.Lo or P. Binny or somebody…there we go…Devorée. Who the (expletive) is Devorée?”

“White rapper slash model slash actress.”
“Fine. If you can get a magazine to split the costs with us, you can go and cover her face cream for Style. How’s that?”
“Okay,” said Olivia doubtfully, “but if I find a proper news story out there, can I cover that as well?”
“Of course you can, sweetheart,” smirked Barry.

That entrée seems harmless enough, but as Fielding attempts to show us how Olivia’s overactive imagination can play itself out, she steers the plot in the direction of the afore-mentioned face cream launch party, where Olivia stumbles upon a potential al-Qaeda plot headed by a Osama bin Laden look-alike who is part terrorist/serial killer and part international man of mystery.
Of course, he and Olivia are intrigued with one another, kicking off an implausible series of events that sends her from the Sudan to the Caribbean, bouncing from one absurd situation to another. And another. And another. There are kidnappings, bomb plots and disasters of all sorts that aren’t believable or funny, and mercifully grind to a halt with a terrorist attack at the Oscars.
So what was Fielding thinking? Darned if I know. The whole finale was simply creepy, given how plausible something like that really is and was, and not all that long ago. This is a talented comic novelist, but some plot lines just aren’t funny, unless you’re a rare genius like Joseph Heller and can make an intelligent and hilarious masterpiece out of a subject like war, as he did with “Catch 22.” But Fielding is no Heller and Olivia Joules is no Bridget Jones, and when things fall flat, as they do so often throughout this book, they do so with a resounding thud. Skip this one.
  • Currently 3.5/5 Stars.
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