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Days of Whine and Roses: Liz Maverick's book, 'What a Girl Wants,' doesn't begin to ask for enough.

Chick Lit Crit

Oh baby, where is thy sting?

By Hannah Strom-Martin

When it comes to chick lit, Bridget Jones's Diary is to the genre what The Lord of the Rings is to fantasy: an unsurpassed example of the form all imitators must look upon with despair. Pour on the plucky, bumbling heroines, lather yourself up in angst and go shoe shopping, but never again will the plight of a working-class singleton be captured with quite the same combination of wit and poignancy as Helen Fielding's eternal heroine.

This, of course, can't stop a girl--or even a guy--from trying.

The most recent crop of chick lit has it all: the painful physical comedy, the packs of interchangeable best friends, the attempts at wry social commentary. But rather like a bad cosmopolitan, these layers fail to coalesce into a intoxicating whole. I waited 160 pages for a plot to form from the various threads in Lucinda Rosenfeld's Why She Went Home (Random House; $23.95), only to find myself still jumping with its protagonist from one botched project to the next.

Lead character Phoebe Fine can bumble with the best of them, but what exactly is she bumbling toward? Ditching the life of a New York working girl for the dismal familiarity of her parents' house in New Jersey, Phoebe bounces everywhere from a series of truly repugnant dates with a symphony conductor to a crazed scheme involving the selling off of her neighbor's trash, with never a hint of a goal materializing. The realization that she hates her life hits religiously every 30 pages and vanishes again, washed away by a series of bad drinks and one-note characterizations. Will Phoebe ever reconcile with her (frankly horrifying) family? Will she ever have the courage to get laid? Do I even care?

With Phoebe's lackluster exploits still slogging through my head, Dan Allan's meditations on the world of cybersex, lisa33 (Viking Press; $21.95), is perhaps more thrilling than it has any right to be. Think of it as chick lit for guys. Allan's protagonist, Tag (ha!), has the same unsatisfied domestic and sexual longings as his female peers and chooses cybersex as his way of coping.

This is already years beyond Phoebe, but aside from its spicy language and a truly funny take on the unstructured, multichanneled discourse of sex chat rooms, the novel--written entirely in the form of chat-room transcripts and e-mail messages--never takes off. Though Tag and Lisa (Tag's online paramour) exchange histories and sexual fantasies, they remain in the end the same people they were at the beginning: unable to commit, miserable with their lives and making readers wonder along with them just what their exchange was supposed to mean.

Allan, at least, is able to talk frankly about modern sexual malaise. In Liz Maverick's What a Girl Wants (New American Library; $21.95), the heroine, Hayley Jane Smith, is too . . . shy? proper? wimpy? to call a penis by its proper name. Here it is referred to as "his business," a dangerously vague and sophomoric term to use when one is penning the exploits of a sexually hungry woman in her mid-20s. Maverick is no Erica Jong.

Though this author's sweetness and empathetic characterization makes her by far the most likable of the three, one cannot help but long for the days when Jong's Isadora Wing first made her appearance, flawed psyche and raging sexuality in hand.

Our new chick-lit heroes and heroines seem crippled by their ability to find sexual release, but their creators skirt the issue, veiling hunger in trite descriptions of groping--usually brought on by drinks or a bad day at the office. As a twenty-something singleton, it is distressing to see the search for sexual fulfillment represented by so bland and ordinary a cast, or worse, pawned off to the supporting players--one-note wonders with names like Suz and Emily whose only purpose seems to be to cheapen sexuality with their heaving breasts and tight leopard-skin pants.

For my money, I'll take Fear of Flying any day--or even Kushiel's Dart (Tor's Fantasy; $7.99), the new fantasy blitzkrieg by Jacqueline Carey. Though Carey's heroine is a sexual masochist, she is still that creature all chick-lit divas wish they could be: a strong, sexy misfit who never complains about shoes.

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From the May 5-11, 2004 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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