Sushi For Beginners
Marin Keyes has sold 2.5 million books worldwide. Her latest is likely to be another bestseller, says Martina Devlin.
Time to break out a new batch of bumper stickers, Marian Keyes Does It Standing On Her Head. Maybe not literally, but she certainly coasts with deceptive ease this business of coasting from one bestseller to the next.
She's onto her fifth in as many years with the current novel, the latest in a series of stepping stones leading her inexorably towards the Maeve Binchy high ground - especially as Maeve has announced her retirement.
Public appeal continues unabated for the wry packaging of a contemporary slice of life for the thirtysomething generation. The US has Sex in the City, Britain has Bridget Jones and in Ireland we have Marian Keyes ... and we're getting the best bargain.
Her speciality is effervescent prose with an edge - she produces snappy, intelligent, amusing fiction but the sting is a glimpse of the dark side of reality; in the latest case she lobs homelessness and clinical depression into the melting pot.
Marian Keyes' characters don't just dithered over slingbacks or mules and follow it up by splashing out on a handbag with a price tag that could keep a family of four in groceries for a month. Granted they do some of that but the also look at the world around them.
So in addition to the men trouble and girls' nights out readers expect from this genre, there's a glimpse of the seaminess inextricably entwined with city life.
Her characters drink cocktails and give lads the eye, scour the shops for that perfect lipstick and chat on the phone for ages to their galpals. Let's face it, most women do. Marian Keyes is chronicling our lives, not reinventing them.
But her women are rounded, three-dimensional beings. They're able to differentiate between end-of-the-month cash flow problems and genuine poverty, between a bad hair day and a truly wretched life. And if that sounds trite, a mountain of women's fiction out there can't make the distinction.
This author creates a credible world, not the parallel universe that passes for reality in some novels. And like trail-blazer Maeve Binchy, Marian Keyes has the ability to use an Irish setting and predominantly Irish characters and to imbue them with universal appeal.
And so to Sushi for Beginners, her latest excursion into chick lit and a novel which, like its predecessors including Rachel's Holiday, reconciles sassiness and humour with revealing glimpses of life's underbelly. It's a combination which had led to 2.5 million sales worldwide for the Dun Laoghaire-based novelist.
Sushi features Lisa Edwards, a London-based mag hag - aka an impossibly glamorous magazine editor - who's dismayed to find herself exiled to Dublin, charged with setting up a new glossy.
The label conscious and freebie-driven Lisa is tempted to turn on her spindly stilettos and head for home until she meets Jack Devine, the messy, manly managing director of the Irish Company. So what if he has a girlfriend, she relishes a challenge.
Then there's Ashling Kennedy, Lisa's assistant, whose stand-up comedian boyfriend Marcus Valentine is set to go stellar. She likes the attention as his girlfriend but sometimes wearies of pandering to his insecure ego. A homeless man named Boo lives outside Ashling's block of flats, his pinched face and omni-present blanket a reminder that even when life seems miserable she has no cause for complaint.
Or has she? Her best friend Clodagh Kelly, the one who has it all - handsome, rich husband, two children, period home decorated to perfection - is about to provide some complications.
Marian Keyes' dialogue sparkles but her characters are her greatest strength they become as intimate as the reader's closest companions. It's a wrench to lose touch with them by finishing a novel. On the other hand there's no option but to continue turning the pages because the author has enough twists to keep you guessing to the end.
Publication: Irish Independent Journalist:Martina Devlin Date:30/9/00
Mail on Sunday
The wacky world of glossy magazines provides rich pickings for novelists, and the wildly successful Irish author Marian Keyes is the latest to have a Chanel and champagne moment. She chronicles the adventures of over-achieving, under-eating London sub-editor Lisa after she is given the unwelcome job of launching a glossy in Ireland with only a bunch of amateurs to help her.
Marooned on the other side of the Irish Sea far from the nearest Urban Outfitters is a nightmare at first, but being sent into the wilderness ultimately helps Lisa achieve personal growth beyond the sort she has removed monthly with hot wax. Hilarious though Keyes's observations of magazine life are, she is at her best when describing the emotional misadventures of Lisa's sweet-natured assistant editor Ashling, a woman cursed with a penchant for stand-up comedians and a beautiful but deceitful best friend, Clodagh. This heart-warming Irish stew of a love story, seasoned with sympathy and plenty of comic charm, is a must for Keyes fans.
Publication: Mail on Sunday Journalist: Wendy Holden
Keyes's fifth novel is the story of three women. One has the perfect career, until, that is, the overachieving, under eating, London magazine editor. Lisa is given the unwelcome new job of launching a glossy in Ireland with only a bunch of provincial amateurs to help her. Another has the perfect marriage and children, though the beautiful, curvy Clodagh is usually bored witless with her handsome husband, photogenic children and tasteful home.
Making up the trinity is Ashling: unlike the other two, nothing about her life is, or ever has been , even theoretically perfect. Utterly unintimidating, she has low self-esteem, no waist, dull brown hair and a history of clinical depression. Her vulnerability is the emotional and moral heart of the book; to use Keyes's description of another character, she has "loser star quality".
But this is a comic romance, not a tragedy, and the first rule of comedy is contrast. The first joke is Lisa's horror at exchanging her high-octane, low-calorie London life for rain-drenched provincialism an ocean away form the nearest Club Monaco counter. Then there's her assistant editor, the humble Ashling, a woman whose idea of a good night out is drinking a few beers while watching a stand-up comedian and whose main assets as a journalist are a knack for organisation and a bag full of plasters and headache pills.
But if unthreatening Ashling's professional and social aspirations are below those of her glamorous, gifted boss, her domestic circumstances - living alone in a tiny, untidy rented flat - are the polar opposite of her best friend Clodagh's impeccably decorated house in a fashionable part of Dublin.
Spoilt, bitchy and utterly selfish, Clodagh is for my money the novel's most successful character. Her frustration at finding herself "married alive" resounds with authenticity. Her attempts to stave off boredom by stencilling borders, her envy of Ashling's career, her hilariously described dread of monthly sex with her husband, her toe-curling shopping trips with her children, which descend into chaos and anarchy as they wipe ice-creams on expensive sofa fabrics and scream blue murder in shopping centres, will ring loud and familiar bells with parents (and friends of parents) everywhere.
Yet there are many dark shadows in this novel: Clodagh's inevitable affair is just one, followed by the perfect husband leaving and her realising for the first time that there are certain things for which even she will never be forgiven. For her, there is no happy ending. As for the others, Ashling somewhat predictably ends up with the dashing Irish maverick managing director of her dreams and Lisa achieves personal growth far beyond that which is removed at the salon every month.
Keyes's greatest strength as a writer is her unerring eye for comic vulnerability. Through perceptive and funny (in particular with her description of AbFab glossy magazine life), she is a sympathist, rather than a satirist. Gifted with a wonderful turn of phrase, she is warm-hearted poet of everyday anguish - Ashling's hand-writing embarrassment at visiting parents from whom she has grown apart exemplifies this brilliance at humorous pathos. Her characters are satisfyingly complex, which makes them all, however different, sympathetic.
Ultimately, Keyes's theme - that the only true success is personal happiness - is as comforting as her unique brand of warm, self-effacing Irish charm.
Publication: Play Journalist: Wendy Holden
The Independent on Sunday
The comfort of self-identification offered by the Hornbys and Fieldings of popular fiction, not to mention the substrata of followers in their wake, has tapped into and exploited a whole generation's confusion about roles, identities and relationships. And for every smoking, dieting, neurotic, thirtysomething singleton in the world, there is a mediocre writer of disposable pulp fiction pocketing a fat advance cheque.
Most will endure as long as the desire for comfort books about the empty lives of materialistic, financially independent individuals lasts, although talk of the Bridget Jones bubble finally bursting has been around for some time. Readers, and women readers in particular, seem reluctant to let the shallow lives of their fictional counterparts rest in peace.
But when the dust has finally settled and the fad for hapless role models has passed, one or two of those eternally disposable writers will still be standing, Marian Keyes among them. Keyes's success has been quite extraordinary - she has beaten Fielding to the screen with a television production of her novel Lucy Sullivan is Getting Married and the big screen is beckoning too. Constantly in the bestseller lists, she has been producing hugely popular novels every year for the past five years.
Her publishers at Penguin have been so confident of success with this latest novel that they have swapped populist soft cover for expensive hardback: not a sign that Keyes is about to run off with the Booker but more that her marketability can withstand the price increase hard cover entails. It is a safe bet. Sushi for Beginners is, like typical Keyes fare, immensely readable - that combination of a pleasurable read with something that doesn't evaporate your brain cells at the same time. It may sound like an easy combination to pull off, but it isn't.
Lisa Edwards is a high-flying magazine editor expecting promotion to New York when she is suddenly downsized to Dublin to start a new glossy Irish magazine. "Glossy" and "Irish" are incompatible in Lisa's book and Keyes has great fun with the London sophisticate's horror of homely taxi drivers and shops that open late on Sunday. Lisa's assistant in Dublin is Ashling, whose depressive mother has inculcated in her daughter a kind of detail-obsessed control freakery, and her boss is that old romance reliable, the dark, tough-but-vulnerable hero, this time appropriately named Jack Devine.
The novel is not so much about finding a partner in an increasingly time-starved world, or about the highly amusing observations of office life, or even about adapting to new environments, although all those elements are there. It is, of course, about the nature of relationships between women, how they negotiate friendships, share their joys, pass on their pain. Keyes has a real talent for making it all seem fresh and funny; easy to identify with but also new.
Popular fiction will never by risky - that's not what it's there for. But neither does it have to insult our intelligence or serve up the same re-heated dish time and time again. Keyes gives popular fiction a good name, no easy feat in a field dominated by overpaid imitators and charlatans.
Publication: The Independent on Sunday (UK) Journalist: Lesley McDowell Date: 12/11/00