Brit Chick Lit author Jane Green tackles pregnancy and parenting in her latest novel, with mixed success. Her chatty style is engaging, but she takes a risk by utilizing three heroines who are clueless to the point of needing a good hard slap. Thanks primarily to their best friends, they come to their senses, but by then the reader may be too annoyed to care.
The first 150 pages of the novel center around Julia, a successful London television producer who is obsessed with becoming pregnant. She’ll try anything to succeed, from lying upside down after sex to engaging in a New Age fertility ritual. She avoids friends who have babies and public areas where she knows she’ll see children. After a year of trying, she has only made herself and her partner Mark utterly miserable. But is Julia really ready to be a mother or is pregnancy just a smokescreen to cover the problems in her relationship with Mark? Next we focus on Maeve, an independent career woman whose life is turned upside down by an unplanned pregnancy that results from a one-night stand. Commitment-phobic Maeve is sure she wants an abortion, but when the baby’s father re-enters the picture, she wonders if some responsibilities might actually be worthwhile. Finally we have Julia’s best friend Samantha, exhausted mother to 5-month old George, whose illusions about the joys of motherhood have been shattered by her obsession to be perfect. She vows to provide organic baby food and keep a spotless house without utilizing any child care. Angry at her husband for his failure to appreciate her hard work, she questions the strength of their marriage and starts to speculatively eye another man.
Green places a great deal of importance on the main characters’ friendships. She does an excellent job at portraying the critical role of a Best Friend in a woman’s life. A true best friend doesn’t always tell a woman what she wants to hear, but she will tell her the truth. There are several examples of the heroines’ best friends reading them the riot act just when they’re acting their most selfishly or self-destructive.
And it’s a good thing those friends are around, because these heroines seem to have no idea why they are making such messes of their lives. It never occurs to Julia that her desperate desire to become pregnant isn’t helping her troubled relationship with Mark. Sam never understands until the end that the reason she’s so mad at her husband has more to do with her own issues than with anything he is doing wrong. And the skittish Maeve doesn’t realize that her reluctance to become involved with other people leaves her safe but unhappy. I read an on-line review that praised the characters as being “real people” who make mistakes like we all do, but it is not a rewarding reading experience for me when I want to slap the characters on every other page.
Green is one of many recent authors who plays around with traditional novel structure and form. Babyville tells the three stories of the women sequentially rather than simultaneously. As a result, just as we become involved in one character’s life, her story ends abruptly with only a little bit of follow-up provided in the next person’s section. Moreover, one character tells her story in first person narrative while the other two have the dubious honor of benefiting from Green’s omniscient, somewhat smug third-person narration.
I do appreciate Jane Green’s refusal to tone down her use of British slang, as so many Brit Chick Lit authors are starting to do, almost as if they know they’re writing for an ignorant American audience. I had no idea what British television shows Julia and her friends were discussing in one scene, but that didn’t matter to me as long as I could hear someone be labeled a wanker and a f*ckwit later in the book.
Green touches on some universal truths in her novel: having a baby won’t save a relationship, parenthood is hard on a marriage, and of course, babies are a miracle that deserve to be cherished. I just wish she had chosen slightly more sympathetic characters to convey her message. If your slapping tolerance is greater than mine, you will enjoy Babyville a lot more than I did.