Girl power?

2nd May 2008 at 01:00
These glitzy and entertaining stories will teach teenagers a lesson, but not necessarily the right one
These glitzy and entertaining stories will teach teenagers a lesson, but not necessarily the right one

The Luxe

Anna Godbersen

Penguin, 1 July 2008


Celia Rees

Bloomsbury, 1 June 2008

(Both 14 plus)

Is it wrong to kill a love rival? How about if she steals your boyfriend, publicly humiliates you, then sends you shopping for her wedding dress?

If you've ever vomited into a plant pot after watching your best friend simpering over your secret lover, you'll sympathise with the many vengeful women in The Luxe, the debut novel from Anna Godbersen.

Is it really an accident when the darling of Manhattan society dies in mysterious circumstances? Have her secrets come back to haunt her, or did a demon in a party dress give her the final shove?

The Luxe, set in Manhattan at the turn of the 20th century, is filled with deceit, manipulation and murder. Best friends are vicious rivals, younger sisters are having covert affairs, and, in true Jackie Collins style, there's something going on with the stable boy.

This could be classed as chick lit, but without the whimpering and crying for men to sweep in to rescue their helpless women.

These females take revenge into their own hands and men are only secondary to the action. However, there's hardly any camaraderie between them, except when plotting to destroy a rival.

When you consider how vicious women can be to each other, and how destructive that can be, The Luxe doesn't set a good example to its target teenage audience by suggesting it's all a hilarious laugh as long as you don't get caught trying to shove your "best friend" into a river.

As a moral tale, the novel is dubious at best - no one is really punished for behaving like cruel little harridans. But the book is hugely successful as pure entertainment.

The Luxe makes back-stabbing funny, scandalous and grippingly vicious. The plots of friends against friends, the failed seduction tactics, and the malicious attempts to disgrace one another are engrossing.

The book isn't militantly sexist. There are a number of fairly admirable, if ineffectual, men in the novel. But the action is set firmly upon the female characters and the passion and power is mostly driven by them.

This is also true of Sovay, the new novel from Celia Rees. Strong willed and independent, Sovay dresses as a highwayman to scare her cowardly boyfriend and rescue her father from the French Revolution.

The character is likely to appeal to girls who are seeking more from their heroines than a pretty dress and a submissive manner.

However, despite championing such females, both Sovay and The Luxe obey the cultural rule that for us to admire women, they must be beautiful.

It doesn't matter how clever or resourceful or brilliant she is, she must also be attractive to be worthy of approval.

Sovay is dazzlingly pretty, and all the heroines of The Luxe are good looking. The poor girl whose dress is too short and too tight is suitably ridiculed for it - and should we really feel sorry for her?

Obviously, this appeals to many women, but how useful is it to reinforce the idea to teenage girls that being accomplished and brave isn't enough?

Is it necessary that female characters should be beautiful to be admired? Sovay is a strong-willed, independent character who frequently outshines her male peers, and in this respect the novel is valuable in promoting teenagers not to bow to traditional ideals of femininity and submission if they don't want to. But by making her so attractive, the book is buying into a cultural myth that tells women that if they aren't beautiful, they aren't worth it.

This doesn't ruin Sovay or The Luxe, but it calls into question their feminist leanings. It's great that the heroines stand up for themselves instead of waiting for reckless, feckless males to get their act together to save them, but they fall into the stereotype that girls want to marry and live happily ever after.

And the story is only completed once they've settled with a suitable love interest - predictably, an alpha male with a sensitive side. Henry, the desirable cad in The Luxe, turns out to be a thoughtful little darling after all, and in Sovay, the heroine is rescued by her burly French lover and settles down to a life of domesticity.

This might be what all girls are seeking, or it might not. But these novels hardly challenge that cliche. Then again, they're both entertaining and well written, so does it matter? It depends: but be aware that this isn't pure escapism. In the end, you'll only be happy once you've beaten the other girls and won your man. It's a lesson, but perhaps not the best one.

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