When I heard that Lynn Harris — a frequent contributor to Salon.com and formerly the advice columnist known as Breakup Girl, whom I have adored in both guises for years — had written a novel called Death By Chick Lit, I knew I had to get my hands on it immediately. Not only am I a huge fan of Harris's sharp, funny, compassionate writing, but I am a huge fan of so-called "chick lit" done well — Melissa Bank, Jennifer Weiner, and yes, Bridget Jones's creator Helen Fielding are just a few whose books I've unapologetically and eagerly consumed, like the first pinktini on a Friday night at the hottest new club in Manhattan with my three best girlfriends, all of us wearing our new Manolos.
Of course, I don't live in New York; I'm too old and plain to get into the hottest new clubs if I wanted to, which I don't; my best girlfriend is currently volunteering at an orphanage in Nepal; and if any of my friends could afford Manolos, we'd rather spend that kind of disposable income on books and travel and organic dog treats. There's that. But I do love both fruity drinks and chick lit, so I felt like I should make an effort to meet my readers' expectations.
Harris doesn't seem to feel the same obligation. Throughout Death By Chick Lit, she subverts the conventions of the genre (and in some cases, the mystery genre, to which this also belongs) at every opportunity, giving real weight to her writer protagonist's frequent complaints that practically all recent fiction by women has been unfairly categorized as "chick lit." ("While anything written by a guy was, of course, lit.")
For starters, Lola Somerville, our heroine, is not a single gal looking for love; she's a happily married woman looking for a lucrative book deal and a killer, in that order. The man in her life is not a tall, dark lawyer/doctor/investment banker but an average-looking computer nerd and self-described feminist with a great sense of humor (the last actually illustrated in dialogue, not merely mentioned on a laundry list of positive characteristics) about whom Lola is unequivocally gaga, and vice versa; there is never any threat of her Losing the Guy, and when she remarks on other men's attractiveness, there's no hand-wringing about whether the grass might be greener elsewhere. Lola lucked out with smart, kind, communicative Doug, and although she takes that good fortune slightly for granted, she never, ever forgets it. That fact then sets the stage for another upending of chick lit conventions: Lola's best friend is not a "smug married" — Lola herself is, and her condescension toward her single, drifting friend Annabel earns her a well-deserved (metaphorical) kick in the head.
Of course, merely doing the opposite of what's expected is not really subversion; it's just reaction. Fortunately, Harris goes beyond these small rebellions and reminds us she's writing lit, no qualifier necessary, with the way she handles the elements of any good story: conflict, character development, suspense. The story's chief conflicts — apart from the murder mystery that serves as a framework for the novel — are relational, and they don't issue from madcap misunderstandings, but from the protagonist behaving recklessly, dishonestly, and arrogantly. Furthermore, the people she loves don't address her poor behavior by becoming withdrawn and sullen, giving Lola the opportunity to basically ignore them while being nagged occasionally by the thought that something's wrong, and she should probably get around to fixing it. Lola's loved ones tell her off, ask her what the hell is going on, insist that she talk things through with them. (Lola, like Harris, is a former advice columnist, and her published edicts about healthy conflict resolution are often thrown back in her face.)
Thus, relationship problems are actually solved by communication — which, if you think about it, is pretty rare in commercial fiction. Certainly in chick lit, the problems usually stem from information the protagonist doesn't have about her significant other — to wit, that he's either a lying jerk deep down or a practically perfect man who's simply given the appearance of being a lying jerk, because he had to remain secretive about some elaborate project he was preparing in her honor. As soon as the truth is revealed, all is instantly hunky dory. But in Death By Chick Lit, relationship problems issue from self-centeredness and poor communication, just like they do in real life, and they're solved by introspection and respectful arguments, just like they are (when they're solved at all) in real life. That's a pretty big knife to the heart of "chick lit" right there.
Speaking of which, there's the whole murder mystery thing. The book opens with Lola stumbling upon the body of fellow chick lit writer Mimi McKee, her throat slashed with a martini glass. From there, we learn that a serial killer is targeting popular authors in the genre, so Lola goes into Nancy Drew mode while wondering why the killer apparently doesn't think she, as the author of a novel called Pink Slip, is worthy of, say, a spike heel to the jugular. As a mystery plotter, Harris is quite competent — which may sound like faint praise, but really, it's not easy, especially when it's not the primary purpose of your book. Put it this way: I figured out who the killer was just early enough to be pleased with myself but not so early that all the suspense was wrecked — which is exactly what you want when you're reading a mystery — and there were at least a handful of twists I never saw coming. (Without spoiling the book, I'll say that one of those twists is an enlightening comment on the distinction between fiction written by women and "chick lit" as a marketing concept.) The thing is, Death By Chick Lit isn't just a mystery any more than it's just chick lit; it's a character-driven novel about ambition, relationships, friendships, and fame. The fact that Harris hung all that on a good, solid mystery is just gravy.
My only quibble with the book is that, as a sequel to Harris's earlier novel, Miss Media, it frequently refers to the events of that book (on which Lola based Pink Slip) without ever giving a full recap of them. We learn that Lola's earlier sleuthing revealed some sort of corruption by her former employer, but never what sort, exactly — so if you haven't read Miss Media, the references to the Ovum, Inc. (heh) affair are confusing. I'm sure Harris didn't want to spoil the earlier book for readers like me, who picked up Death By Chick Lit first, but I still think the references to it could have been handled a little more deftly. Having said that, if the worst thing about this book is that it encouraged me to read another Lola Somerville novel by Lynn Harris, well, maybe I don't have any quibbles with it at all.