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Beyond Bridget: Helen Fielding's first novel actually outpaces her more famous creation, 'Bridget Jones's Diary.'

Cause for Celebration

Helen Fielding's latest outpaces 'Bridget Jones's Diary,' even though it was written first

By Michelle Goldberg

READING Cause Celeb, the latest novel by Bridget Jones's Diary author Helen Fielding to hit American bookstores, it's tempting to marvel at how Fielding's talent and reach have expanded. The story of a harried young London publicist who goes to work in an African refugee camp, Cause Celeb is so much funnier, deeper and smarter than either Bridget Jones's Diary or its sequel, Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason, that it's hard to believe they were all written by the same person.

But praising Fielding's growth would be a mistake, because Cause Celeb was actually written before Bridget Jones, though it's just now being released in the United States. Knowing the chronology makes the vapidity of the Bridget Jones books perplexing, but it also makes Cause Celeb a hugely gratifying surprise.

Bridget Jones was widely toasted as the archetypal '90s single girl. Her fears and foibles were said to encapsulate the situation of women seeking fulfillment in a world booby-trapped with caddish suitors, stifling jobs, parental pressures, psychotically unreasonably ideals of female perfection and the nagging terror that, unlike Mary Tyler Moore, you might not make it after all.

With her obsessive calorie-counting, alcoholic and chocoholic binges, matrimonial longings and incessant self-improvement schemes, Bridget was certainly endearing, but she was also one-dimensional and more than a little pitiful. Judging by the book's massive success, many women related to her, but I don't think I was alone in frequently wanting to slap her. Like her sob sisters Ally McBeal and Sex and the City's Carrie Bradshaw, Bridget was a charming caricature of hapless, ditzy shallowness, a hipper version of a Cathy cartoon.

Imagine, though, if Bridget Jones had gotten a life and found more rewarding outlets for her energies than physical maintenance and romantic keening, if she had stumbled toward dignity and purpose while keeping her self-deprecating humor intact. She'd be a lot like Rosie Richardson, the fabulous heroine of Cause Celeb.

Rosie certainly has plenty of Bridget's solipsistic neurosis, but it doesn't define her. She balances her vanities and insecurities with bravery, audacity and empathy, emerging as one of the richest, most enchanting and original female characters in recent fiction.

As the story begins, Rosie has been running a camp called Safila in the fictional African country of Nambula for several years. At first, she seems as different from Bridget Jones as Joan of Arc is from Lady Chatterley. Quickly, though, the novel flashes back to when Rosie was a literary publicist who "wiggled around in short skirts, legs in sheer black tights crossing and uncrossing in meetings, then kept going on and on about people not being interested in my mind."

The story continues along two tracks, chapters detailing a growing crisis at Safila alternating with sections about Rosie's odd route from party girl to relief worker. Both threads converge in a dazzling final section that combines caustic satire, wrenching pathos, suspense and enormously satisfying climaxes.

Initially, Rosie's interest in Africa has much more to do with romantic maneuvering than with altruism. Desperate for a way to spend time with dreamy TV producer and host Oliver Marchant, she concocts a project to get her boss onto a program he's doing about celebrity charity benefits. It works in several ways, and soon she's involved in an emotionally sadomasochistic relationship with the fickle, arrogant Oliver and arranging a PR "mercy dash" to Africa for her boss.

AT THE APOGEE of her soul-shredding affair with Oliver, her boss pulls out of the Africa trip, sending her instead. There she discovers something more urgent than jockeying for position in London society. In one of the book's many delicious ironies, upon returning home, her newfound indifference to Oliver and his celebrity clique causes her stock to rise sharply, but she rejects the people whose acceptance she once desperately craved in order to work at Safila.

Four years later, locusts destroy the harvest near Safila, and the camp is threatened with an overwhelming tide of starving refugees. Undersupplied and maddened by the viscous slowness of the aid bureaucracy (whose politics Fielding deftly skewers), Rosie returns to the celebrity world to organize a hasty benefit.

What follows is a riotous farce as various preening narcissists either attempt to paint themselves as saviors or justify their indifference with fashionable prattle about neocolonialism. But amazingly, acute as Fielding's parody is, there's little misanthropy in it, and even her most callous characters enjoy their redeeming moments.

Equally impressive is Rosie (and Fielding's) utter lack of sanctimony. Rosie even manages sympathy for an aging actress who falls apart in the midst of widespread starvation because of a hairstyling mishap. "It wasn't as simple as vanity. Her whole sense of herself had been whisked away by the hotel hairdresser," Fielding writes.

One of the book's themes is that small problems don't stop mattering just because huge ones loom. At the same time, Rosie's salvation comes when she grasps the difference between trivia and tragedy. That's a lesson all the world's Bridget Joneses need to learn.

Cause Celeb by Helen Fielding; Viking; 342 pages; $24.95 cloth.

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From the April 12-18, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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