Olivia Joules is born Rachel Pixley, a ‘normal schoolgirl, living with two parents in Worksop’. But after she is cruelly orphaned, sent to live with a batty aunt, and then abandoned by her boyfriend she takes ‘a long hard look at life’ and decides to ‘search this shitty world for some beauty and excitement’. She reinvents herself and arrives in London as Olivia Joules: thin, clever, fanciable, quick-witted and well-dressed. In fact, she is damn near perfect — the kind of girl other girls might resent — but of course no one knows girls better than Helen Fielding, so Olivia has a touch of daffiness. Now we like her after all.
Olivia is a reporter for the Sunday Times, but her tendency to overdramatise minor news items has landed her in trouble; she is demoted to the ‘Style’ section and dispatched to Miami to cover a cosmetics launch. At the party, the face cream’s exotic creator, Pierre Feramo, reminds her of Osama bin Laden. In fact she thinks he is Osama bin Laden. But when she wakes up the next morning she knows she’s just being silly (that overactive imagination she’s always being ticked off for). Then a huge floating luxury-apartment ship is blown to smithereens in a suspected Al-Qaeda attack — perhaps Olivia is on to something after all? And so begins a sublimely fantastical plot. Olivia chases Feramo to LA, Feramo chases Olivia round his fabulous home, he invites her to his diving resort in Honduras, she finds out more suspicious stuff, she is recruited by MI6, there are more complications, and still some more … then — hurrah for Olivia! She saves the day and bags an extremely dishy fella.
This is a girl’s own adventure — with added sauce — to rattle through in one entertaining sitting. Helen Fielding is a great comic writer without being cheap or sarky, and when she arches her amused eyebrow over the looniness of LA, or two wannabe actresses comparing T-shirts, or a clutch of backpackers wired on cocaine, there is nothing more delightful. However, the book is let down by its heroine. Olivia may be clever, beautiful and modest, and she may charm every man she meets, but she doesn’t quite captivate the reader. When we hear her irreverent, panicky thoughts at a critical moment — ‘I’ve got Stockholm Syndrome. I’ll end up being featured in a short report on Woman’s Hour’ — we experience a rush of warmth, but these thoughts seem inconsistent with her cool exterior. And doesn’t she get tired of always being right? Her imagination turns out not to be overactive after all; it’s pretty much spot on. She can winkle out LA phoniness, she is unfazed by glamour or riches, she is highly principled, she even seems to be an expert on wine … it’s all a bit jealous-making.
Readers of romance — and this book is really a romance, for all its gadgetry — want to believe that a happy ending can come to someone who’s riddled with faults: someone as self-deluded as Emma Woodhouse, or as prejudiced as Elizabeth Bennett, or as untogether as, well, as Bridget Jones. We already know that smart, sexy cookies — girls like Olivia Joules — get their man. Saving the world as well? Grrr.