Friday, May 14, 2021

Olivia Joules and the Overactive Imagination by Helen Fielding


You might know Helen Fielding as that other famous female British author that even Americans know about. Unlike the other other one, though, Fielding seems content to enjoy her fame in peace and quietude and doesn't hang around on the internet spouting nonsense and offensive bullshit. More power to her, I say. I hope she's living the high life on her heaping piles of well-deserved money. (Mark Darcy-- I swoon.)

In case you didn't know, OLIVIA JOULES AND THE OVERACTIVE IMAGINATION is by the same author as BRIDGET JONES. It is a lot less popular than Bridget Jones and, like CAUSE CELEB, seems to have a tendency to divide its audiences. I read this for the first time as a teenager. In fact, I read it while living in the UK (I think I bought the book at a Waterstones in a mall; it was on sale for just a few quid). And since I'm doing a super fun project where I'm rereading some of the books of my youth (literary sad girl canon), this book seemed to be a solid candidate as I have vivid memories of lying awake late at night reading this book, skimming through for the bizarre and randomly placed illustrations that are interspersed throughout the book with text (all done comic book style, because of course).

The premise of this book is incredibly silly. It was written in the wake of 9/11 (2003), so Al-Qaeda is, of course, the villain. The heroine is a gorgeous/perky/cute journalist with an overactive imagination who ends up crying wolf right about when nobody believes her: that the hot guy she's super into might, in fact, be a megalomaniac who could be a terrorist in disguise. Also, there's makeup launches in Miami, a bit of a take-down of the L.A. party scene back from when boy bands were still a thing and people still wore red carpet drop-crotch pants, and there's a scuba diving accident, a trek through the Sudan, and someone accidentally snaps a pic of Bin Laden's crotch. No, it's not Cocaine o' Clock at the Nose Candy Cafe. All of this really happens in the book. I KNOW. I kind of loved it.

So here's the thing. This book does come across as a teensy bit Islamophobic in hindsight. And by a teensy bit I mean... this book would not be written today. That said, I think it is an incredibly cutting social commentary on everything from British snobbery, American ignorance, vapid celebrity culture, stereotypes in general, and that hyper-paranoid mindset so many people had in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attack. You kind of get the same sort of vibe with old James Bond films and 1980s bodice-rippers: they show the attitudes and reflections of the times, for better or for worse. And what makes OLIVIA JOULES a bit more forgivable is that it really doesn't take itself at all seriously.

I think I enjoyed this more reading it as a teen but BRIDGET JONES was always this author's crown jewel to me (although I have a soft spot for CAUSE CELEB). If you're going to read it, be prepared to suspend all of your disbelief and take it with a whole bag of Morton's salt.

P.S. Debatable point, but I would argue that the biggest crime in this book was not the terrorism but the noughties fashion. I forgot about micro-minis and the low-rise jeans/whale tail combo, and ramen bowl haircuts for men. Lord help us all, how we made it out of the 2000s with any semblance of taste is nothing short of a miracle.

3 out of 5 stars

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