The Goddess Rules by Clare Naylor
(Ballantine, $22.95, R) ISBN 0-345-47053-2
***
A lot of women eschew the Chick Lit genre, complaining that its books are filled with the same clueless, passive heroines with bad taste in men.  For the most part I’ve managed to ignore that criticism – after all, every genre has its clichés – but I could sympathize with the detractors as I read The Goddess Rules.  Fortunately, British author Clare Naylor adds an unusual character who gives the novel surprising and welcome sparkle that saves it from being just another predictable C.L. romp.   

London artist Kate Disney is in the midst of making love with her sort-of-ex-boyfriend Jake when a strikingly attractive 50ish woman bursts onto the scene, showing absolutely no embarrassment at interrupting such an intimate moment.  She imperiously announces that she is Mirabelle Moncur, and that she is giving  Kate the unique opportunity to paint a portrait of her “pussy,” Bébé.  Once Kate gets past her indignation, she learns from her boss and surrogate father Leonard that Mirabelle was a French movie star and sex goddess of the 1960s.  After a string of infamous love affairs and failed marriages, she retired to Africa at the age of 40 and became a wildlife preservationist.  Bébé is, in fact, a beautiful but imposing lion cub.   

Kate doesn’t care if this woman is the Queen of England; she has no right to barge into Kate’s life and tell her that she deserves better than the charming but faithless Jake.  Mirri may have men falling at her feet – her conquests range from a young movie actor to the avowedly homosexual Leonard – but Kate can never hope to attract the same quantity and quality of men.  She’s aware that Jake is less than ideal but afraid to ask for more.  

But as Kate spends more time with the fictional equivalent to Brigitte Bardot, she starts absorb the life lessons Mirri imparts so passionately.  Mirri has always assumed that she deserved the best, and was thus never surprised to receive it.  Kate slowly learns to respect herself more and take a risk on a new relationship with a fellow artist who is strangely tongue-tied in her presence.  But as Kate struggles to become more confident and adventurous, she realizes that Mirri has a few secrets of her own, including the real reason for her impulsive trip to England.  Maybe the relationship isn’t one sided, and even the formidable Mirabelle Moncur can learn something from her young friend Kate about taking a chance on true love.  

Without the amazing Mirabelle Moncur, The Goddess Rules wouldn’t be worth a second look.  We don’t need another saga about a character like Kate who insists that her lousy boyfriend is just a misunderstood darling who needs love and understanding, and we all know that in the end Kate will realize, only after taking Jake back one too many times, that she deserves to be loved and appreciated.  But in this case the journey to that foregone conclusion, courtesy of Mirri, is a hoot.  The book shimmers with vitality whenever she is in the scene, whether she is entertaining a young lover in a very public place (hence the book’s R rating) or calmly surveying the scene where an ex-boyfriend has just made a totally extravagant gesture that has the neighbors up in arms.  I respected her desire to live her life on her own terms without regrets, as well as her savvy business sense about the animal preserve that is so important to her.  The book needs both Kate and Mirri to balance each other out, but I couldn’t help wishing for more of the unique actress and less of the standard Chick Lit heroine.   

When Mirri isn’t front and center, I noticed the novel’s other weaknesses as well.  Naylor has an annoying and jarring habit of switching point of view abruptly within a scene.  She fails to capitalize on the possibilities of a wild African lion cub walking down the streets of London; after Kate’s initial surprising meeting with Bébé, Naylor criminally glosses over their painting sessions.  Few of the secondary characters, other than the avuncular Leonard, make much of an impression, but then any character pales in comparison to Mirabelle.  She should consider renting out her services to the multitude of other Chick Lit heroines who could benefit from her Gallic wisdom.  Ah, but then we wouldn’t need any more of this genre’s novels if its leading ladies all wised up quickly with her help, would we?  

--Susan Scribner


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