Running in Heels
With her first two novels, 32-year-old British writer Anna Maxted has created a Sweet Valley High-style series for single women in their late 20s/early 30s. Maxted's 2000 debut, Getting Over It, is now out in paperback; her latest, Running in Heels, just hit the hardcover shelves. The two books offer up gossipy, first-person narratives and plots drawn straight from those "How to Handle Your Best Friend's Wedding," "Good Guys or Bad Boys?," and "Does Too Thin Equal an Eating Disorder?" articles that fill women's magazines. (Maxted was formerly an assistant editor at Cosmopolitan UK.) The problem isn't her choice of issues--many women do have fucked-up relationships with food, for example--but that Maxted's books are chatty, formulaic, and populated by frustratingly unaware women.
These are career women with friends, dates, families, flats in suburban London, and emotional problems that escalate wildly out of control midway through the novels. With one-liners flying through the air and snappy dialogue rushing the narrative along, it's a wonder the characters' rock bottom doesn't come quicker.
In Getting Over It, Helen Bradshaw is distracted from her plan to break up with her loser boyfriend when her father suffers a fatal heart attack. As he lays dying, Helen can't say anything remotely close to how she feels. She is as estranged from her emotional life as she is from her father. In the months following his death, Helen plays out this failure to communicate with everyone around her and ignores her pain. Her mother makes a sad suicide attempt, and the older woman's psychiatric nurse, Cliff, advises Helen to give their mutually unhealthy mother/daughter relationship a break. Helen characteristically responds defensively:
"And so I just ignore her, do I, until she leaps from a window?" I say sarcastically. Cliff--who is turning out to be as charming as halitosis--admits that resisting my mother's demands is a gamble. But he also says if I'm always available to bail her out, neither of us will "move on."
I'm not sure I like the all-inclusive nature of that last statement. "What do you mean by that?" I say haughtily.
What kind of fool doesn't understand the order to "move on"? Is it as tiresome to be out of touch as it is to read about? Once Helen learns to be honest with herself and the people she cares about, somewhere near the end of the book, she starts a relationship with the nice veterinarian she met on the way to her father's funeral. (Lucky break, eh?) Getting Over It trades the notion that landing the right guy will ensure a perfect life for the notion that a stable life will attract the right guy. Both plot lines are tiresome, and in the end Helen is a character designed to make intelligent readers scream.
Running In Heels mines the same territory: See the above synopsis for story line. Change the character's name to Natalie Miller; her emotional catalyst from death in the family to best friend's wedding; her midbook realization of problem from denial to eating disorder; and the vet to a financial writer. Guess what happens in the end?
Neither book is as funny as the jacket blurbs promise; at most, both novels resemble a chatty lunch date. In fact, Maxted's fiction is at its best when she drops the humor entirely, as she does in some honest passages in Running in Heels that detail Natalie's warped self-perception regarding her eating disorder. But such moments are short-lived. Maxted made her career leap from magazine to novel by blending the two mediums; her novels are written for an audience with a short attention span. Where she could introduce the Cosmo set to a deeper level of understanding and treat seriously the difficulties faced by the modern young woman, she instead relies on rhetorical zingers, inch-deep characters, and predictable plots.