Schooled in feminist theory, I felt a certain, unaccountable responsibility to maneuver my copy of "Our Bodies, Ourselves" into a prominent position blocking out, if at all possible, my collection's less savory offerings (dog-eared copies of Vogue, well-loved Maeve Binchy novels, the odd Tom Clancy spy thriller). A sort of respectability tier system developed, with books stacked three deep on each shelf. Over the years, the private persona of my bookshelves evolved into something quite different from the carefully groomed face they showed to the world.
And so, when Helen Fielding's smash hit "Bridget Jones's Diary" stormed onto the market in the mid-'90s, I was prepared. Just as I knew exactly where and when I would buy my copy, I also knew precisely where I would put it (anchored safely behind Germaine Greer and Naomi Wolf). I bought the book and surreptitiously devoured it, laughing ruefully at Bridget's travails, her occasional public drunkenness and her misadventures in the great world of weight loss. Casting guilty glances in the direction of Gloria Steinem's memoirs, I empathized utterly with Bridget's quest for a man who is, as she so eloquently put it, "utterly and completely shaggable" and I understood completely when she fell apart after a particularly humiliating breakup.
I loved that book, for all its minor flaws, because it put a new spin on being young and single. When the book first emerged, I was struggling with career questions, trying desperately to find an identity separate from my parents' expectations, and looking around for that rarest of breeds, a good man all conundrums Bridget faced with considerably more cheer and optimism than I did.
But for a long while, I hid my affinity for Fielding's heroine. I laughed along with friends who scorned the book's so-called "anti-feminist" leanings and rolled my eyes accommodatingly whenever anyone mentioned Bridget's struggles with a phantom "weight problem" (which was generally understood to fluctuate between five and 15 undesirable pounds). I nodded silently when my mother dismissed the book as "fluff."
And then, one day, when I was living in San Francisco, land of the painfully politically correct, I saw a notice at my local bookstore. Helen Fielding was coming to town.
Well. That did it for me. I was going to be there to meet this woman who'd captured so many of my own neuroses with superhuman wit. I was giddy the day of the book signing, arriving an hour early at the bookstore only to be met by a crowd of women, all hovering around the table where Fielding was scheduled to appear. A flustered bookstore manager flitted around the room, wringing his hands and muttering under his breath. "All these people... never even heard of this woman... where am I going to put everyone?"
Perching on a window seat to wait, I looked around the room at Fielding's collected fans. And what I saw changed me and my bookshelf forever. There were septuagenarians, teenagers and thirty-somethings. Women who looked like they'd just ducked out of a board meeting for an hour, and sweatshirt-clad women with babies strapped to their chests. There were women who'd brought sheepish-looking boyfriends and women who'd arrived with their mothers. It was, I decided, a pretty impressive display of sisterhood. And everybody there was waiting, unashamed, to meet and applaud Bridget Jones's creator.
When Fielding arrived, she was kind and funny, and she signed every book proffered to her. She laughed along with audience members and answered pointed questions about her own life with humor. And when I took my copy of "BJD" home that afternoon, I didn't tuck it into the depths of my bag. I carried it proudly in my arms, meeting people's eyes and smiling. I let myself into my apartment, marched over to the bookshelf, and plopped my newly signed volume in the middle of the center shelf. Facing the room. Unfettered by guilt.
Now that Fielding's book is a new movie (and the movie is wonderful, by the way), the debate over Bridget Jones will begin again. The same critics who savaged the book will call her celluloid incarnation flighty, or pathetic, or destructive to the cause of feminism. And I will argue against them, standing firm in my new resolve. Bridget Jones is not meant to be a heroine or an example. She's meant to be a tragicomic sister to those of us who prefer to take our lumps with a dose of (albeit slightly hysterical) laughter, and who choose to see the humor in the long and arduous journey from self-doubt to self-acceptance. After all, if you can't laugh at yourself, someone else will be more than happy to take over the job.
Meanwhile, on the newly liberated bookshelves in my current apartment, Betty Friedan mixes happily with Joe Klein, who abuts Rosamunde Pilcher. As for Bridget, she's ensconced safely next to the comforting bulk of Anna Karenina.
I'm sure the two of them have a lot to talk about.