Cause Celeb, by Helen Fielding

>> Monday, February 13, 2006

Helen Fielding is best known for being the creator of the poster girl for chick lit, Bridget Jones, but before that, she wrote Cause Celeb, a book that does have a taste of chick lit in certain parts, but which ends up being completely different.

Rosie Richardson, a twenty-something literary puffette is in a totally nonfunctional relationship with an unevolved but irresistible adult male--a hotshot TV presenter who plunges her into the glitzy, bitchy inane lifestyle of London's It people. Disillusioned with the celebrity world, Rosie escapes to run a refugee camp in the African desert.

When famine strikes and a massive refugee influx heads for the camp, governments and agencies drag their heels. Bringing her former media savvy to the fore, realizing the only way to get food out fast is to bring celebrities first, Rosie returns to the life and man she fled to organize a star-studded emergency appeal from famine-racked Africa.
This was a lovely book. It could have done with a somewhat stronger romance, but other than that, it was just great. A B+.

Cause Celeb has an interesting structure. For much of the book, the action runs back and forth between London and the Safila refugee camp in the fictional African country of Nambula, and between past and present. Interspersing one scene from each, Fielding tells the story of the events leading up to Rosie deciding to leave London for Africa, and the events leading up to Rosie Richardson deciding to go back to London to seek help for her camp.

The scenes from the past are actually kind of reminiscent of typical chick lit... the leading-to-nowhere job, the awful boyfriend our heroine tolerates outrageous stuff from, that kind of thing. Rosie works for a publisher (but of course), doing PR. During a party, she meets famous presenter Oliver Marchant and they start dating, and at his side, Rosie gets an introduction to the celeb lifestyle.

Only problem is, Oliver is a cruel bastard who seems to delight in tearing down Rosie's self-esteem, and who keeps going back and forth, driving her crazy. Whenever Rosie's had enough with him, Oliver seems to realize that, and he'll throw her a crumb, maybe telling her he loves her, for instance. The next Rosie knows, once she's so happy, he's screaming at her and humiliating her and telling her he doesn't love her and needs his space. Over and over and over, until he's pretty much destroyed all her sense of self-worth, the slug.

The only reason I didn't throw the book against the wall in these sections, angry at Rosie for taking Oliver's crap, was that after each of those chapters, we had one of the Africa chapters. And that was kind of a guarantee that there was light at the end of the tunnel, that Rosie would, indeed, grow out of her self-destructive behaviour and become one seriously strong woman.

These Nambula chapters show Rosie actually running a refugee camp in Africa. See, one of the things did in her PR job was to arrange for her employer to donate some books for the campaign to help starving refugees in Nambula, people who'd ran from famine and war in the neighbouring Kefti area. Apparently there'd been a Live Aid-ish campaign to help them, and Rosie's employer wanted to get involved, in order to get good PR. Well, Rosie ends up being the one going to Nambula to take the books, and what she sees there, coupled with her increasing unhappiness about her relationship with Oliver and the shallowness of her life in London, convinces her to chuck it all and move to Africa.

Years later, she is actually the person in charge of running the Safila camp, and, at first, almost unrecognizable from the Rosie in the London chapters.She's competent, efficient and caring, tireless in her determination to do things right and, since things are much better now in the camp, in her determination to prevent another disastrous famine such as the one from four years earlier.

When rumours and a dangerous exploratory mission confirm that there are serious possibilities of a new and even more devastating crisis, Rosie does her best to get official help, but gets no results. Desperate, she does the only other thing she can think of that might work: she goes back to London to try and convince the celebrity acquaintances she made when she was going with Oliver to help her put on a benefit.

The sense of humour here is just incredible, because the ROTFL scenes didn't detract at all from the book's heart and emotions. Fielding had me in tears one moment, and in tears of laughter the next, sometimes about the exact same things. Her sense of humour is pretty irreverent, and I thought it worked to make the book less of a "oh, those poor people" drama. The refugees here aren't annonymous masses meant just to make us pity them; they're individuals, with their own personalities and virtues and flaws. And bringing the shallow, self-involved celebrities to the camp makes for some of the funniest, most tragic scenes I've ever read. And those scenes are tragic. Something else the humour helps to do is lighten up things a bit, because what's going on around the camp is just absolutely horrible. And the remarkable thing is, lighten up doesn't mean cheapen or play for laughs.

The characters, both Rosie and the secondary cast, are wonderfully done. Even the most highly exagerated among them have a core that feels true. They're a parody, sometimes, but a parody that's spot-on. The only character who I thought was slightly under-developed is Rosie's love interest. There just isn't enough there. I think I'd have prefered to have either something bigger or no romance at all, to be honest. Still, that was minor stuff. The whole point of the book is the other stuff, and that's perfect.

Even if you hated Bridget Jones, I highly recomment Cause Celeb.


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