Revisiting the 90s searching for 'Mr Maybe'
Jane Green’s Mr Maybe is a showcase piece of 1990s’ chick lit. Told in the 1st person, it follows Libby, a woman in her late 20s, working in PR in London. She’s pretty, witty, aspirational, but a hot mess where it comes to relationships and personal finance. Thus, we are taken along as she falls in love with ‘no-strings-attached’, broke, leftist, writer Nick. When that breaks apart, however, she pulls ‘dating-to-marry’, loaded, conservative, investment banker Ed. Libby has to grow up and decide who she is, what her priorities are, what she wants in life, by comparing her life with these two men: the edgy heartthrob, or the formal public school alumnus.
Yes, if this description sounds familiar, it is understandable. This is from the decade which gave us “Sex in the City”, and Bridget Jones’ Diary, among others. The narrative voice is peppy, the values young and shameless in their search for sexual, emotional, monetary, and social fulfilment. Interestingly, despite the very identifiable, even explicit, timeframe, the message proves to be universal, purely human, ever relevant.
Who would enjoy this
Mr Maybe is a volume of chick lit. It is aimed at female readers looking for support for, maybe even vindication of, their young professional lifestyle choices. The drama is just enough for personal growth; the descriptions of wants and desires, explicit.
This sort of book is perfect as a summer read. Also, it would suit readers who are slightly nostalgic for the 90s, yet don’t feel like bingeing in front of a screen. Finally, it may be a good call for those who like assertive, contemporary leads.
Who should give this a pass
This book is not for those who dislike its genre, as it is so stereotypical. It visits all the tropes and clichés possible, while being completely unfazed by morality. This is particularly true when Libby and all her friends completely ignore how much of a fake she has been in her relationship and blame the other party.
Additionally, the narrative voice will probably grate on many people’s nerves. This, coupled with the archetypical portrayal of the characters, makes the book rather brass, and should be avoided by the more morally concerned readers.
Conclusions and suggestions
I confess I picked up Mr Maybe on purpose, as an example to examine certain questions for future writers, namely: what makes chick fic succeed as a genre; how well does it age; how is femaleness seen.
First, chick fics create a sense of empowerment and justification for female professionals. It tells them “it’s OK to mess up, to want more thank you have, so long you have friends.” The main element of chick fics is NOT romance, but female bonding – having a friend (or a few, even better) with whom you can talk about anything, from the silly to the life changing, is the key to success. We all have friends, and so we can identify. Mrs Green does an excellent work at using Libby’s friend as a foil for her love life, exposing her idealisation of marriage.
Secondly, since the main premise of chick lit, friendship, is universal, the story will hold well over time. Sure, the context and style will not follow suit, thus 90s literature feels dated and as though it tries too hard. The reader can easily adapt the story backwards and forwards in time, and it will be relevant to them. But, why should they make the effort when they are reading for pleasure and relaxation?
Finally, chick fics present females as sparkling, caring of each other, ready to burst through any limitations, particularly working ones. Meanwhile, they are allowed to fail, to put on masks when they come short of expectations. Sure, they are ideal women, but they are far from perfect. That is the genre’s strongest selling point, as opposed to romantic fiction.
For anyone wanting to write chick lit, I would suggest:
- Remember that perfection is not relatable, and neither is a smarty-pants lead character narrator.
- Use well the universality of female bonding by reducing time-and-space specific references. It will keep the story, and thus the book, desirable for longer.
- Build up the stories of the friends to reflect the evolution of the heroine. This modernised version of bildung romance is not an individualistic journey, but one achieve against examples.