I was probably never going to understand The Bride Stripped Bare, the latest offering by expatriate writer Nikki Gemmell and published, amid much fanfare, under the nom de plume “Anonymous”. Judging from the way it was reviewed it was clearly a no-boys-allowed affair. The Bulletin described it as an “intelligent and accomplished exploration of female sexuality and the social landscape it inhabits”. It was, they said, “at the intellectual and literary apex of chick lit”. I passed over it in bookstores and resolved never to read it.
In the end though, I found it on the floor of a friend's car as we were driving to a movie. “What's this like?” I asked, holding it up. My friend, a bloke, looked over at me. “Dunno,” he shrugged. “I just skipped straight to the porno bits.” Disgusted, I threw it back on the ground. After our movie I decided to borrow it anyway. I took it home and skipped straight to the porno bits. Eventually, I got round to reading the whole thing and discovered a very, very silly book indeed.
The Bride Stripped Bare purports to be the diary manuscript of an insecure, rather jaded, 30-something woman. The preface explains that the diary has been submitted for publication by the author's mother, the author herself having vanished under highly fishy circumstances. (Car found at the top of a cliff, body never recovered. Cops say suicide; Mum thinks she might have faked her own death). The story begins with the author's honeymoon in Marrakech, Morocco. She is happy, in love, blooming. But right from the start we know that all is not perfect. Hubbie is a decent and well-meaning sort of a fellow but he's selfish and inattentive, especially in the sack. Also, we suspect that he might be having an affair with the protagonist's best friend, Theo; a free-spirited sex-therapist who suffers from an unfortunate sexual condition (“Vaginismus”, if you're interested). Gradually, things get worse and the two grow more distant.
Eventually, our ever-nameless heroine meets Gabriel, a handsome - yet sensitive - Spanish boy. Gabriel is a semi-employed actor who we later find out is also a virgin. This has been bad news for Gabriel and a complete disaster for his girlfriends. But for our heroine it's perfect. She has been feeling neutered ever since her marriage, the loss of her career and her desultory sex life. She resolves to instruct him in the ways of woman. The two begin an affair.
Traditional gender roles are inverted and Gemmell uses Gabriel's vulnerability and sexual inexperience as a way of exploring well-worn themes of possession, control and female empowerment. “An idea, beautiful in its simplicity. To initiate Gabriel, to teach him exactly what you want. To create a pleasure man, purely that, the lover every woman dreams of. You'll be in control, for the very first time, you'll be able to dictate exactly what you want. And there'll be no expectation of how you should act.”
Pliant Gabriel opens a door of sexual liberation, and a series of erotic, Houellebecqean-style encounters ensue. There are taxi drivers, orgies, strangers, Gabriel, of course, and an increasingly confused hubby.
So why is it all so silly?
To begin with there's the pre-canned feel of the sexual fantasy: Sex with strangers? Fluffy-chested virgins? Dashing Mediterranean types who talk about their feelings? Please. This is stock-standard stuff for any chick over 30. See Catherine Millet, Germaine Greer and Shirley Valentine.
Then there's the writing. Gemmell has a funny prose style. “Sensuous”, is the way one reviewer described it, and I suppose in part it is. But it doesn't always work. Her practice is to dump long, flowery descriptions on the back of short, spare sentences that can't always bear their weight. The result is a string of breathy, overwrought sentences, which add little in the way of meaning. Thus, the weather is “unclenching” and the narrator feels “fat with content”. Evocative. But of what exactly?
The tone too, is irritating: Brooding, weepy and utterly inward-looking, as though no world exists beyond one's own emotional landscape. To be fair, this is no doubt what Gemmell had in mind - to tell the story of a woman's inner life. But she delves too deep. In the end, the narrator stands guilty of the same adolescent self-absorption that she has supposedly been railing against.
The Bride Stripped Bare may well be the hottest thing in chick lit since Emily Bronte bashed out Wuthering Heights. I'm too boofy to know. But to me it reads like a stern warning to every man who's ever forgotten to put down the toilet seat or switched on the news while his wife was telling him about her day. Indeed, this impression is confirmed by the vaguely menacing dedication that prefaces the book: “For my husband. For every husband.” Gulp. Sleep with one eye open, Mr Gemmell. And if I haven't heard from you by ten, I'm calling the cops.