Great Comic Novels with the Gift of Gab-Semple Bookmarks
One thing I love about Maria Semple’s storytelling is her fabulous comic timing, which she uses to great effect in her dialogue. She learned that in a high-pressure world – that of writing for television. She worked in TV for several years, including the shows Beverly Hills 90210, Mad About You and my favorite – the hilarious Arrested Development.
My favorite Semple book is her 2012 novel Where’d You Go, Bernadette, about a very unhappy woman is both having an identity crisis and being driven slowly mad by Seattle’s particular brand of political correctness. Bernadette gave up her promising architectural career when she moved to Seattle and became a mom. She hates the city, and she doesn’t like her life. She does love her daughter, Bee Branch, who does her best to keep Bernadette on track.
It doesn’t work. Bernadette, a contrarian fish out of water in the oh-so-nice Northwest, becomes stranger and stranger, retreating to her Airstream trailer in the back yard, wearing a fishing vest nonstop, contracting with a “virtual assistant,” based in India, to reorganize her life (this does not end well).
Bernadette is hilarious, but like a lot of comedy, the laughs are a way of dealing with pain. It’s a portrait of a bright, accomplished woman who cannot find her niche in life. Like a good TV show, there’s a whole ensemble of highly entertaining characters Bernadette encounters on her quest to find some kind of peace.
Another great comic writer, one who switched back and forth between books and movies, was the great Nora Ephron, author of Heartburn.
Heartburn was a novel, but it was based on truth – the story of Ephron’s doomed marriage to Carl Bernstein, one half of the Woodward and Bernstein duo that investigated the Watergate break-in and eventually brought down a president.
It was a glittering Washington marriage, but in real life and in the novel, the charismatic husband could not stop getting tangled up with other women. The marriage ended after four years and two children, and Ephron moved back to New York.
Then she wrote Heartburn, at 179 pages one of the most painful and funniest books ever (it also has recipes). At the end of the book, Ephron explained why she wrote it: “If I tell the story I can make you laugh, and I would rather have you laugh at me than feel sorry for me. . . . Because if I tell the story I can get on with it.” Heartburn became a movie of the same name starring Meryl Streep and Jack Nicholson.
Let’s move on to an equally funny but less painful story – Bridget Jones’ Diary by Helen Fielding.
Most people know about Bridget Jones through the movie adaptations of Fielding’s books about Bridget, a 30-something woman in London trying get her life together, struggling with her love life, her weight and perhaps her tendency to drink too much.
Told through diary entries, it perfectly captures a young woman’s struggle for independence while still obsessing over the things women tend to obsess about (in many cases, pleasing men). Fielding made this story look effortless, but in truth it’s a comic masterpiece.
I’ve concentrated thus far on women writers, but I can’t leave this list without talking about Nick Hornby, one of the funniest writers working today – in both books and movies. Here are two of the best:
High Fidelity is the story of Rob Fleming, a man who works in a record shop that still sells actual records. He is a commitment-averse young man who looks to pop music to help him sort out his own confused emotional state – he’s too hip to commit to the woman he loves.
This is the story of a 30-something guy who is finally trying to grow up. Rob has a great set of eccentric friends, and their dialogue is a pleasure to read. Charming and laugh-out-loud funny, this book was made into an equally funny movie starring John Cusack (the record store did move from London to Chicago).
Another Hornby book about a man trying to grow up is About a Boy. In this book the protagonist, Will, hits upon an unbelievably cynical strategy to meet and sleep with women – he joins a single parent group, pretending to be a single parent himself.
But somehow his participation in the group starts to crack his shell, and eventually he becomes friends of a sort with Marcus, a boy who is looking for a man who can help him figure out how to grow up. Will seems the most unlikely of candidates for this job, but this being a warm-hearted Nick Hornby story, Will and Marcus find some common ground.
About a Boy was made into a movie starring Hugh Grant, who did a great job of portraying the evolution of a man who thinks he’s a cad but discovers that he really does have a heart.