Author: Marian Keyes
Details: (c) 1997 Marian Keyes; Pub The Penguin Group 1997; ISBN 0-14-027179-1
Verdict: Rachel's Holiday is a really stellar example of a much-despised genre.
Reasons for reading it: I needed some mind-candy as displacement from packing and housework, and once I'd started it I simply had to read all the way through.
How it came into my hands: Local charity shop.
Marian Keyes writes straight down the line chick-lit. She isn't ironic and doesn't at all challenge the conventions of the genre, but she also writes stunningly well. Keyes' typical heroine is an ordinary Irish girl 'made good', who over the course of the novel comes to realize that what really matters is not the superficial glamour of her adopted lifestyle, but Genuine Wholesome Irish Kindness and Sincerity. And while in the process of realizing this, she generally manages to Find Love with an improbably wonderful boyfriend. I mean, pass the sick bag, right? The thing is, Keyes writes this tripe so incredibly well, with such vivid, believable characters, that you can skim right over the awful plots. It does help that Keyes actually is Irish herself and can write reasonable Irish accents, and isn't afraid of a little self-mockery when it comes to Irish stereotypes.
The eponymous Rachel of Rachel's Holiday is a little different from Keyes' standard model twenty-something glamourous Irish heroine in that the plot hangs on her addiction to cocaine and how she deals with it. Cocaine addiction is not an obvious subject for a chick-lit novel in a way, but somehow RH is firmly within the conventions of the genre, the obsession with fashion and dieting, the modern independent girl who is also an old-fashioned heroine whose main ambition in life is to find her handsome prince.
The story is narrated in the first person by Rachel, which is very interesting because for most of it, she's doing the classic addict's denial thing, and is therefore a hugely unreliable narrator. Her unreliability, the way she sets up a situation where she ends up being checked into an addiction clinic as a result of a series of accidents, is fairly transparent; the 'revelation' that she actually is an addict after all does not come as that much of a surprise. Still, it does add an extra dimension to the novel. Also, RH creates a lot of sympathy for Rachel; you really get into her skin. She doesn't see herself as a poor little thing whose life is ruined by the evil drug, and her sense of self as a person rather than a victim in a way makes her unhappiness more vivid. Of course, the misery of being an addict is on rather a different scale from the standard vague malaise of the chick-lit heroine inexplicably dissatisfied with her apparently perfect life, and RH manages to be poignant without being sentimental.
This was particularly interesting to me because Rachel is almost as unlike me as it's possible for a human character to be. Towards the end of the book, when she's cooperating with psychoanalysis to help her overcome her addiction, it is established that one reason for her tendency towards addiction is chronic low self-esteem. When I was a kid and other children were being mean to me, my mother used to comfort me by telling me that I shouldn't worry, they probably just had self-esteem problems. And Rachel comes across as the classic case, she does all the things that confident intellectuals like me despise: she is obsessed with completely superficial things like fashion and labels, and won't think for herself but professes to tastes that are "in", she's hopelessly jealous, and is often extremely unkind to people she ought to care about because she's afraid of being judged negatively if she is too pally with uncool people.
The thing is, because Rachel is so well written, and because we see things from her point of view, I found it very possible to empathize with her, to get a glimpse of how absolutely terrifying it is to go through life worrying about what 'people' think and without the sense of self-worth that allows one to exist without this sort of validation from people whose opinions don't matter. Generally people with poor self-esteem do not make likeable protagonists, but it's clear in RH that Rachel is a decent person even if she does stupid things sometimes. She's that rare creature, a strongly sympathetic character in spite of her real character flaws.
The ending is hopelessly corny; as I said, RH is straight chick-lit with no pretensions to be anything else. But at least RH doesn't trivialize the struggle to overcome addiction. It's not Trainspotting-style grim realism by any means, but at the same time, Rachel's experiences in the addiction clinic and with rebuilding her life once she is released are not glamourized. If she finds True Love and there's a general message that she might find things hard from now on but basically she's won, that's pretty forgivable.
In short, Rachel's Holiday is Bridget Jones transcended and made perfect.