Best-selling chiclit writer Sophie Kinsella is back with a new novel about the growing pains of a British working girl in a social-media obsessed age. This is a funny, romantic, and at times sobering book about the importance of cultivating authenticity and tenacity both at work and in relationships.
As with Kinsella’s popular Shopaholic series, this stand-alone novel maintains a balance between keeping it real and keeping it comically light. What’s more, My Not So Perfect Life, for all its comic exaggerations of plot, neurotic self-obsession of character, and overall sentimental drama, gets it right when it celebrates the forging of a genuine sisterhood in a workplace teeming with politics.
The story revolves around mid-twenties research assistant Katie Brenner, who wants to leave her Somerset rural roots behind and “to run with the big dogs”, in London.
Ironically enough, for someone who works in a branding and strategy agency, the first thing on her agenda is to pull off a transformation of personality. After all, if she can design brochures that sell a desired image, why not design her own “Cat Brenner from London” act?
Naturally, her soul searching involves more surface searching than soul, and can feel borderline neurotic — or funny, or both at the same time. She rehearses her opening lines for maximum effect:
“I’m Cat in fact. Cat short for Catherine. Because… well. It’s a cool nickname. It’s short and punchy. It’s modern. It’s London. It’s me. Cat. Cat Brenner.
Hi, I’m Cat. Hi, I’m Catherine, but call me Cat.”Cat’s agenda is forged in fire when the novel opens. She has turned her back with regret on her loving and clumsy father and the family farm. She’s intent on losing her provincial accent and her naturally wavy hair to fit in with the swish set of London girls. Her move has come at a cost. She stays in an apartment room so tiny that her belongings are contained in a hammock, and the arrangements with her flat- mates are even more unorthodox. Her commute takes forever, she can barely afford those networking pub nights she’s been dreaming of, and her boss doesn’t remember her name. Life is heading in the opposite direction of the glamour she dreamed of, and her Instagram posts begin to look fake even to her. It all adds up to some real difficulties, with the solutions becoming more tangled and complex by the minute. Katie’s bond with her out-of-sight but never out-of-mind father is also far-reaching and tangible. She reflects, “If you saw us from the outside, you’
d have no idea.
You’d think we were a father and daughter reuniting happily on Christmas Eve. You’d never sense the waves of hurt and guilt bouncing invisibly between us.”
However, when she winds up on a rooftop in her London office getting unexpectedly intimate with the boyishly good-looking scion of her agency it’s hard not worry that young Cat is going to be swallowed up by a formula bigger than her. It’s only chapter two after all, and don’t we already know how that plotline has got to end irrespective of what happens in the middle?
Fortunately, Kinsella cools it down. The potentially fairy-tale romance between successful Alex and inexperienced and broke Cat ebbs and flows but remains secondary in importance to her abilities in other areas; namely to propel herself out of disasters. And there are disasters a-plenty, Kinsella doesn’t hold back any punches when it comes to her heroine. Right down to having her fish around in a garbage bin for a sandwich where she is mistaken for a charity case, and handed a few bob for Christmas.
A slave to social media and its demands for flawless presentation, Cat regularly manufactures “perfect” images of her experiences on Instagram and texts her distant best friend Fi about how fabulous her life is. All the while, she’s eating turnip soup and food out of a can. The novel turns on the difference between image and reality — and while Cat is unselfconscious of her own constructions, she is even more clueless about those she’s applied to the big love-hate relationship in her life, and also her boss, Demeter.
Her awe and envy of Demeter is absolute. “Everything you could want out of life, she has. Job, family, general coolness. Tick, tick, tick. Even her name. It’s so distinctive, she doesn’t need to bother with her surname (Farlowe.) She’s just Demeter. Like Madonna.”
Things are not what they seem, and no one learns that better than Cat when she winds up living an uncomfortable and humiliating lie. A two-part book (that reverses the traditional movement, as old as the first British novel, Tom Jones) action moves from London to the countryside. The results are invigorating and while the plot does run a little top-heavy on coincidences, Kinsella pulls it off.
Katie Brenner is a run-of-the-mill chic lit character in some ways, she’s goofy, cute, lacks self-awareness, is strongly motivated, and is full of good intentions that often go wrong. However, by the end of the book she gets somewhere new and this part-workplace drama, part-romance novel takes on some shades of a coming-of-age story. All characters are well-etched and humanised, and Katie’s relationships move along once she stops trying to Photoshop things. As for Katie’s relationship with social media that once determined how she expected her life to look? Well, that’s one of the nice surprises in a novel that is full of them....