Girls’ Night In
edited by Lauren Henderson,
Chris Manby and Sarah Mlynowski
(Red Dress Ink, $13.95, PG) ISBN 0-373-25074-6
This collection of short stories by a variety of American and British Chick Lit authors is the follow-up to three successful anthologies published in Britain that raised money for War Child, a humanitarian organization dedicated to serving children affected by war. One pound of every British version purchased was donated to War Child; the American version includes only a vague promise that “net proceeds” will benefit the organization. There’s a certain irony in the juxtaposition of stories about women who obsess about finding the pair of shoes with the sad reality of children facing death and starvation, but at least the authors are making an effort and making a difference.  

The 21 stories are brief, ranging from 8 to 25 pages, with the authors portraying the lives of single (mostly) women in their 20s and 30s. The least successful efforts are those that try to depict a fully-developed boy-meets-girl romance within the limited word count. Meg Cabot’s “Party Planner” finds the author revisiting her familiar New York Journal setting via her favorite e-mail style in a story about a sincere but naďve Events Coordinator whose attempt to throw an employee holiday party takes a disastrous turn, but not before she makes a cute fool of herself in front of a handsome executive. Mildly amusing but forgettable. Carole Matthews’ heroine in “Traveling Light” is a buttoned-down Englishwoman whose wedding plans fly out the window when she encounters a carefree American on an exotic trip through Asia. The outcome is predictable from the moment they meet. Probably the most successful romance is Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez’ “Cat Lady,” whose heroine, resigned to her spinster status, decides that she needs to start collecting cats, only to find fate may have another future in store. By the way, if you haven’t read this author’s breakout debut novel, The Dirty Girls Social Club, you’re missing a fabulous fiesta of a book.  

Other Girls’ Night In stories that tell of lost love found, or platonic pals who look at each other in new ways are more satisfying, because the relationships are already established as the stories begin. In “Changing People” by Sophie Kinsella, the heroine’s first client in her new interior decorating business is her ex-boyfriend’s new girlfriend. Sarah Mlynowski’s “Know It All” features a wacky roommate whose psychic powers lead the heroine to a long overdue decision about letting go of the ex-boyfriend who is still in love with her. And the novel’s final story, “Acting Strangely” by Chris Manby, finds the heroine’s guy pal trying a little too hard to help her win her new boyfriend’s attention.  

Perhaps the most gratifying stories in the anthology are character studies without complicated plots. My favorite selection is Anna Maxted’s “The Marrying Kind,” in which the author herself is the first–person narrator, taking a second look at a secondary character from her earlier novel Getting Over It. The story makes it clear that the character isn’t a passive creation to Maxted but a fully-realized individual who has a life outside the pages. A similar theme runs through “Don’t You Know Who I Am?” by Adčle Lang. A self-centered pop-star-slash-actress narrates the highlights of her day into a Dictaphone, assuming that the ghostwriter for the anthology will clean up the drugs and sex references, and dismissing War Child’s target population as insignificant compared to her own need for press coverage.  

Some of the stories are lighthearted and charming, especially Marian Keyes’ look at a professionally accomplished heroine breaking free from her insecure, controlling boyfriend. The fun factor is that the story, “The Truth is Out There,” is narrated by an engaging alien named Bib, who has landed in Los Angeles while trying to reach the planet Zephir. Other stories are more sobering and, frankly, depressing, most notably “Dating the Enemy” by Lauren Henderson, which takes a chilling look at the 21st century version of the war between the sexes and the ways in which a generation haunted by their parents’ bad marriages and divorces avoids intimacy at any cost.  

Several of the Girls’ Night In stories have been published previously in the three U.K. anthologies that preceded it, but the majority were written specifically for this effort. While I’m not a big short story fan, I enjoyed many of these brief tales and have made note of several authors whose full-length work I am interested in exploring. If your lifestyle lends itself to reading in 10 minute chunks of time, Girls’ Night In might fit the bill, plus you can feel good about yourself by knowing you’ve donated to a worthwhile cause.  

--Susan Scribner

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