Beyond Bridget
Chick lit gets heavy
By MELENA Z. RYZIK

Renee Zellweger as Bridget Jones
Move over, Bridget Jones! There's a new chick-lit heroine in town, and she's just as likely to sport saddlebags as stilettos.

Think of it as "fat chick" lit. Ever since Helen Fielding's "Bridget Jones's Diary" all but created the chick-lit genre in 1998, there has been an onslaught of novels about size-8 singletons searching for the perfect man. And even if these girls-in-the-city wore - gasp! - a double-digit size, they'd diet before book's end. But in a slew of new works, the central characters are getting their man without giving up their cake.

"I've seen a trend for not just average-sized, but large-sized characters," says Margaret Marbury, a senior editor at Red Dress Ink, a chick-lit imprint owned by Harlequin. Red Dress is planning to release several books with plus-size protagonists in the coming year, including "Inappropriate Men," which has a size-24 siren who isn't afraid to be sexy.
"What fascinated me when I first saw this book is that the character had such self-confidence and sex appeal," says Marbury. "She doesn't at all try to lose weight or make any excuses for who she is."

'Big, Jewish and sarcastic'
Whether this is a new trend or simply an evolution of an existing genre, it's resonating with readers. Jennifer Weiner's "Good in Bed" (Washington Square Press, $14), which many say helped open the door for heavier characters, spent nearly a year on the best-seller lists, and is being developed into a series for HBO. (Weiner has said she doesn't want a normally thin actress like Renée Zellweger, who plumped up for her Bridget Jones role, to portray her heroine, Cannie Shapiro.)

"My big hope is that they find some talented young actress who's been told her whole career that she needs to lose weight in order to work, and tell her that she's perfect just the way she is," she says.

"Jennifer wrote about a segment of the population that wasn't used to reading about themselves," says Greer Hendricks, a senior editor and vice president at Atria, a division of Simon & Schuster, and the editor of "Good in Bed." "I think that's what really made it fly off the shelves."
Reader Lisa Gesson agrees. "I felt like I could identify with Cannie," says Gesson, 28, an advocate for the disabled who lives in Manhattan. "We're both big, Jewish and sarcastic. It's nice to read something that I can actually see myself in."

And Gesson isn't alone in her appreciation of fat fiction. Jennifer Henderson, a 31-year-old homemaker in Castine, Maine, runs Dangerously Curvy Novels (www.curvynovels.com ), a Web site that reviews books with heavier heroines. "I was getting pretty tired of the 'Barbie Doll Goddess' sort of heroine I'd seen so much of in other novels," says Henderson, who, at size 16, considers herself average, but concedes that's she's plump by Madison Avenue standards.

After reading a review of "Good in Bed," Henderson wondered if there were other stories that appealed to her demographic - women who had spent years battling their weight and low self-esteem, but were now "living large and loving it." In response, she launched the site - part personal reading list, part "you're-not-alone" inspirational therapy (each review begins with an assessment of the main character's size) - and a monthly newsletter.

Her curvy readers suddenly have a lot of literary ladies to look up to. There's Josephine Fuller, the chubby crime-solver in Lynne Murray's mysteries. And in Laurie Notaro's "Autobiography of a Fat Bride" (Villard, $12.95), there's a photo of Notaro on her wedding day, having "completely abandoned the effort of sucking her stomach in."

Breaking down boundaries
Wendy Shanker, a humor columnist and author of the forthcoming nonfiction title "The Fat Girl's Guide to Life," thinks it's about time fat women got some respect. "There are just so many of us, we might as well get some props," she says. "Even if we don't look like Renee Zellweger, we still fall in love, we have affairs and romances."

In fact, even romance novels, traditionally more escapist fare, are hewing closer to reality. In "Blushing Pink" (Onyx Books, $6.99), Reese Brock still has bodice-ripping sex scenes - only this time, they involve a potbellied body. "There were a lot of 'don'ts' in romance novels. You would never have a certain age or a certain weight," says Amy Pierpont, a senior editor at Downtown Press/Pocket Books. "But as times have changed and readers' tastes have changed, boundaries are being broken right and left."

Jenny Bent, a literary agent with the Harvey Klinger agency who represents Notaro, speculates that this new breed of chick-lit novels has a "warts-and-all" appeal. "It's not about women who make us feel bad about ourselves," she says. "It's women who look like us. It's real women."

Originally published on July 16, 2003

 

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