Undigested material

February 2008

Her books are full of fast women and beautiful cars, glossy cheekbones and prominent hair. Wendy Holden's novels usually involve a down-to-earth Plain Jane getting the man and the money, but the real joy for readers is in the bitchy, glamorous settings. She even manages to cram in more puns per inch than "black belt in tongue-fu" Kathy Lette.

Her books are frothy, enthralling, devourable. The Cinderella-a-like plotlines jog along as beautiful, spoilt people make implausibly witty comments in idyllic locations. But beneath the veneer of high-quality chicklit is a peculiar tendency to return to one seemingly irrelevant motif.

Flick through Simply Divine, Holden's 1999 novel about Jane, a journalist who crosses paths with glamorous celebrity socialite Champagne. She endures setbacks and Champagne's bitchy attempts to humiliate her, but the happy ending sees her grab her dream man and achieve undreamt-of career success.

So far, so chicklit. But we're still on the first page when Jane dreams of being "light-headed with happiness and not eating". By page 14, she's "mortified" by the idea that a stranger might have seen her wobbly bits. Even after meeting the man of her dreams, she is still disgusted with her body. "She was too fat to live. She could just stick her head in the oven and it would all be over. Easy. Except for the disgusting thought of all that gluey takeaway pizza cheese which had stuck to the oven bottom."

The dual horror of surplus flesh and surplus food recurs throughout every book I've read by Wendy Holden. What's even more surprising is how often undigested or badly digested food is key to a plot point.

In Simply Divine, Jane's inability to digest artichokes ruins a romantic moment between her and a gorgeous, rich but unsuitable businessman. "[H]e had slowly pushed her legs apart. Then, the crucial moment, the bit where what wasn't supposed to happen had happened. It could not be held back. It had spurted everywhere."

Yes, she vomits all over his sisal matting and leaves his flat burning with shame. Another romantic moment with the same man is later ruined when a plate of hot, uneaten chicken tikka masala is thrown all over her.

A couple more examples: in Fame Fatale, gold-digging Belinda tears up a book worth hundreds of thousands of pounds when a badly cooked chicken dinner leaves her caught short with no loo paper. And in Azur Like It, bankruptcy looms for a property developer when plumbing problems give his exclusive South of France development a toilet-like stink.

Again and again, the motif of food as a problem recurs. The put-upon central character starts each book with low self-esteem and boyfriend trouble, and this state of affairs is entwined with her weight problem (real or imaginary). By the end of the book, though, she has emerged from her chrysalis of fat, usually because she's lost weight and learned to love her body with the help of a man who loves it even more.

Of course, as in the best of fairy stories, we discover that the central character was beautiful all along. It was insecurity and low self-esteem keeping her from true love and career success, not that extra half-stone or so. Her dream man loves her as she is, but she needs to shed those symbolic layers of fat before she has the confidence to see things as they really are.

This strikes me as an attempt to have your authorial cake and vomit it up again. Of course, chicklit authors are the new fairy tale tellers and they must obey the rules of the genre. So the weight loss can't be a necessary precondition of gaining her dream man's affections: if Cinderella really needs the coach, dress and makeover to snag Prince Charming, how is he any better than the image-obsessed Ugly Sisters we've been taught to despise? But the reader needs some vicarious revenge on the bitches who have tormented our Plain Jane, so it's essential that she emerges triumphant and beautiful before turning her back on the glossy scene for good. So she loses weight accidentally - usually through stress - so she can compete with the bitches in terms of looks and still win outright morally by not being as shallow and diet-happy as they are. Two-nil to Cinders.

But what about the insistent recurrence of undigested food motifs? Tummy trouble keeps pushing its way into the reader's consciousness, whether it's the "molten bowels" of a woman in lust, drunken vomiting or the farting induced by a New Age diet. It certainly doesn't fit in with the fairy-tale template. Which, of course, is the point - it's a nod to reality.

Real-life versions of the worlds Holden describes - glossy magazine offices, film sets, star-studded parties - aren't populated by people who have a healthy relationship with food. They're populated by people who have a professional interest in controlling their calorific intake regardless of their own desires. The recurring mentions of food-related problems in Holden's novels are an insistent reminder that real-life glamour has a dark underbelly.