Helen Fielding | Fabulous Fifties

Somak Ghoshal | October 11, 2013

Caffeine units: no idea (bad). Minutes spent staring at phone: 12 (not too bad). Phone calls received: 1. Minutes spent talking on phone: 38 (*rapture*).

“Hello, it’s Helen Fielding here,” said the voice on the other end, as I scrambled for my pencil and notebook, managing something between a grunt and a yelp to signal my presence. For a few seconds I was afraid of becoming hysterical, before Fielding’s calm manner forced me to relax. Soon we were chatting about dating, love, apps like Grindr and, of course, the new Bridget Jones novel, which is out this week.

Appearing almost 15 years after Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason (1999), Mad About the Boy has so far received mixed responses. In her latest incarnation, Bridget is 51, a widow with two children, Billy and Mabel, and a 30-year-old toy boy called Roxster, who she meets off Twitter. She hasn’t had sex in four-and-a-half years since her husband, Mark Darcy, died tragically in Africa, but is finally getting back in the game, overcoming what may be called a long phase of “manertia”, with expert guidance from old friends—Tom (“still fabulously gay” and like a loyal “hag-fag” faithfully telling Bridget how much weight she has lost) and Jude (now an Alpha female but still battling that old demon, her ex, Vile Richard). For the better part of the novel, Bridget is also trying to write a screenplay based on Hedda Gabler, a play by “Anton Chekhov” according to her, and sell it to a producer—that is, when she is not checking the number of her Twitter followers.

Some things, however, have changed. Shazzer, Bridget’s fuming feminist friend, has joined the ranks of the Smug Marrieds and moved to Silicon Valley. And the glamorous Talitha, a sizzling 60-year-old, has been inducted into the circle of trust. The humour is uproarious, if exaggerated at times, balanced by morbid thoughts—of obesity, loneliness, failure and death, not necessarily in that order. But self-pity is not to be tolerated.

“Better die of Botox than die of loneliness because you’re so wrinkly,” Talitha bursts out in exasperation. Bridget has panic attacks about dying suddenly, leaving the children alone, and being eaten up by them because nobody comes to their rescue. “It’s better than dying alone and being eaten by an Alsatian,” Jude assures her. Only Tom, with the uncanny compassion and empathy gay men feel towards their female friends, advises her to wallow, leading to one of the most powerful sections of the book.

Critical reception has been intensely divided. In The Guardian, Suzanne Moore called Bridget “a vapid consumerist and self-obsessed as ever” and deplored Fielding’s kind of writing as “anti-feminist fiction”. “The idea that a woman shouldn’t enjoy a book that fails the feminism test is a pretty self-defeating approach to literature,” Hadley Freeman countered in the same publication, “…to claim that if a book doesn’t perfectly reflect one’s life and values it is worthless is what I would call pure fuckwittery.”

Fielding doesn’t sound too worried. “If we can’t laugh at our weaknesses as women we haven’t got very far,” she says. “There will always be a gap between what we want and what life turns out to be.”

Like the absurd blue soup served by Bridget at her birthday party, there are plenty of surreal moments in Mad About the Boy: Bridget trying to attend to Mabel and Billy, puking and pooping simultaneously; Bridget and kids stuck on a tree; Bridget and Roxster nit-combing each other before having “responsible sex” (the children bring in an epidemic of nits from school); and poor Roxster being chased by all kinds of bugs (from weevils in the muesli to moths from the cabinets), like the “nine plagues of Egypt”, in Bridget’s kitchen. The confusions are all too human—though maybe not desirable in a woman of “a certain age”.

But then, what is “middle-aged”? As Bridget retorts, “In Jane Austen’s day we’d all be dead by now.” Fielding, 55, concurs. “I was absolutely firm I’d put in that Bridget is in her 50s. Things have changed so much now.” Even a few years ago, Fielding says, online dating would have been seen as “a sign of desperation”, but now “it is perfectly normal”.

“Texting and email are great ways to connect,” she says, “Electronic media can make age difference feel far less acute than it may be in real life.” A phrase like LOL can be a great leveller, though “twunking” (drunk tweeting) is not advisable. Meeting a beautiful stranger online can be great fun, though, as Fielding gently warns, it can also be potentially disastrous. No one wants to take home an axe-murderer.

Although the Roxster saga does not end very felicitously, the light-hearted tenderness between him and Bridget is touching. “They are really like a pair of children,” says Fielding, “He’s good-looking, down-to-earth, funny, and vital to giving back Bridget her sexual confidence.” Although Bridget, characteristically, goes around “de-childing” the house before their first date, Roxster does not really mind the mention of the children.

Kindness and decency, Fielding insists, in spite of my disbelieving protests, are not vanishing qualities; they are just not celebrated enough. “The 20-somethings I know are terribly worried about their careers,” she says. “It would be good for them to put an equal emphasis on being happy.” Fielding, a self-confessed “huge fan” of the self-help genre, admits that instruction manuals can be maddening—nothing comes close to first-hand experience.

One of the key themes of Mad About the Boy, for instance, is parenting—especially having children late in life—precocious toddlers and children fixated on electronic screens. “Mummy’th fifty-one,” says Mabel, who is inseparable from her doll, Saliva. “She says she’th thirty-five but she’th really fifty-one.” Billy, who is a carbon copy of his sensible father Mark, can go apoplectic if not allowed to have his fix of the Xbox.

Bridget’s hilarious, and moving, strategies to be a supermom is in sharp contrast to those adopted by her feisty neighbour, and new BFF, Rebecca. “When I signed up for having children,” yells Rebecca during one of her meltdowns, “I did NOT sign up to be ruled by a collection of inanimate thin black objects and a gaggle of TECHNO-CRACKHEADS.” The outburst ends with: “Children of your age in India live entirely successfully as street urchins”, and the offenders in question being left on the doorstep until their mother’s temper has cooled off.

Fielding herself loves to spend time with her children when she is not writing. “I am an outdoorsy person,” she says, “I enjoy vacations, mini-breaks, eating out with small groups of friends—things most normal people like to do.” The writing part, which started with a revisiting of her diaries from her Oxford days, is not difficult. “I can pull off a column on a couple of hours’ deadline,” she says. “It took me about 18 months to write Mad About the Boy.” But this easy facility need not translate into an endless stream of novels. “The series would have been diluted if I had simply gone on adding to it all these years,” says Fielding. “I wouldn’t be writing another Bridget Jones book unless I feel really strongly about it.”