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Katrina Onstad’s How Happy to Be (2006)
As I’ve already mentioned, I didn’t find out about Canada Reads Independently until I’d already gotten myself thoroughly and completely Buried In Print for February; I can’t remember the last time that I felt so overwhelmed with the number of pages that I planned to turn in a particular month (okay, I can, actually, it was May 2008: see, it was that traumatic).

So I opted out of re-reading both Carrie Snyder’s Hair Hat (but I posted my 2004 review here and I did read the collection twice) and Katrina Onstad’s How Happy to Be.

Here is the review that I wrote of the latter in 2006 (which also considers Leah McLaren’s The Continuity Girl, which isn’t up for consideration for Canada Reads Independently).

A Lot Like You: A Dual Review

In “Girl Trouble”*, Katrina Onstad considers the ubiquitous references made to Candace Bushnell and Helen Fielding in any discussion of any book that brushes up against the territory of the chick-lit genre. Is the narrator in her 20s or 30s? Is she stylish? Does she work in fashion, public relations, advertising or publishing? Does she live and work in a hip, urban setting? Is there any shade, however subtle, of pink on the cover?

The intersection of these major elements in a novel virtually guarantees its knee-jerk classification as “chick lit”, a term which has been in use since the late 1990s, being officially included in the Oxford English Dictionary in 2002. As Katrina Onstad suggests, however, a closer look might reveal more similarities with Jane Austen’s Elizabeth Bennet and Emma Woodhouse than with Chick Lit heroines Carrie Bradshaw (Bushnell’s best-known heroine) and Bridget Jones (but of course everybody knows about Bridget).

Katrina Onstad undoubtedly had her own novel, How Happy To Be, in mind with this observation, but she is not alone in lamenting that books which examine joys and losses in their female characters’ personal and professional lives, are regularly dismissed as formulaic froth. Orange-Prize nominee and Iowa Workshop writer Curtis Sittenfeld asks in “The New York Times”: “To suggest that another woman’s ostensibly literary novel is chick lit feels catty, not unlike calling another woman a slut — doesn’t the term basically bring down all of us?”**

Is it simply another instance of the envy and bitterness said to characterize women writers who achieve varying degrees of success? Emily Schultz, Canadian writer, poet and editor, writes: “The woman who is without children or aging parents to fill her literary scribblings will have a hard time proving herself en par with her contemporary male writers—and it should be argued even those who belong to that family brand of literature where women dominate will never be compared with their male contemporaries, but only with one another.” And, furthermore, is it necessary to categorically dismiss a novel because it possesses elements commonly found in a popular genre in which women have had remarkable success?

Both Katrina Onstad’s How Happy To Be and Leah McLaren’s The Continuity Girl consider the personal and professional lives of stylish, thirty-something women (one working in film and one in publishing) living in Toronto. Although one is written in the first person and the other in the third person, the narratives have a similar feel to them: clever, punchy even, fast-paced and cinematic. Still, there are elements which set the two books apart.

How Happy To Be begins with a description of the main character’s childhood memory of visiting a health food store with her father, “where walls and food were brown and moist. Pushing through the door was like stepping inside a redwood tree, all flesh and fibre.” (2-3) In Katrina Onstad’s novel, a beaming young reporter at the film festival is described a having “the sticky coating of a chocolate-dipped ice-cream cone”. (61) And the main character has hangovers of “the tinyquasimodoisringingabellinmyskull variety”. (103) The author delights in language.

Leah McLaren’s writing is less about language and more about reflection. “Meredith, the main character in The Continuity Girl, “had retained the overly literal, slightly alien quality of a child who had grown up in an institution.” (18) Later, she comments: “Funny how the things that obsessed you privately became a matter of public shame.” (89) And, later still in the novel: “They never mentioned the story Irma had told Meredith … but it sat between them like an armrest – providing a comfortable distance as well as a point of contact.” (300) The author offers simple but thought-provoking observations.

A similarity between the two novels, however, is that each of the main characters is over 30 (whereupon a woman’s fertility dips significantly, even further at 35) and weighing the possibilities of motherhood in her future. “I don’t think there’s a woman alive who hasn’t run through every single what-if scenario, moved the pieces around and back again a hundred times, playing mommy like you did as a kid,” declares the narrator of Katrina Onstad’s How Happy to Be. (174) In Leah McLaren’s The Continuity Girl, Meredith considers:

The elusive biological stand-up artist. How many blind dates had been made and broken? How many eggs had shown up on time, checked the reservation, taken a table, ordered a glass of champagne and waited … fifteen minutes, twenty, half an hour, staring at the bread basket, wishing they had brought a magazine, toying with their cell phone, avoiding the pitying glance of the waiter, until finally skulking out, burning with shame and rejection at the hands of a lover they had never met. (74)

The theme of motherhood is an important one in these novels, although the relationships between each of the main characters and their mothers is dramatically different, and their thoughts and ideas about pregnancy and child-rearing are also dichotomous.

There is another shared theme between the novels which is not considered a common characteristic of chicklit. In Katrina Onstad’s How Happy to Be, it’s revealed when the narrator is at a press conference with Nicole Kidman and asks her the question: “What’s it like to be you?”

Realizing as she’s asked it, that it’s a “bad question”, nonetheless she is desperate for the answer. She thinks to herself: “I can’t imagine any other life but this one. I’m being stabbed to death by my own point of view.” There is a long pause and, in the suddenly quiet room, Nicole Kidman leans forward and speaks softly in a girlish, Australian voice: “It’s probably not that different from being you.” (110)

A similar epiphany unfolds for Meredith in Leah McLaren’s The Continuity Girl, “that fundamental rule of humanity: that no matter how impenetrable and well-appointed people might seem on the surface, beneath the waxed brows and bleached teeth they were just like you. A total mess.” (277)

There is nothing messy about either novel, however. At one point in The Continuity Girl, credibility seems to stretch when one character appears on Oprah and, as a result, is conveniently shuttled between continents, bringing them conveniently within reach of their love interest, but as Carol Shields writes: “Who knows in the end what is true? Not you. Especially not you.” Perhaps it is of the “stranger than” variety, but this is fiction. As Thomas King writes: “‘There are no truths, Coyote,’ I says, ‘only stories.’”

As in many of Carol Shields’ novels, the details of everyday women’s lives are of vital importance in both Katrina Onstad’s and Leah McLaren’s novels, and, as in many of Thomas King’s works (which I don’t believe have ever been lumped in with ‘ladlit’), the substance is often serious but is relayed via light-hearted dialogue and observation. Nonetheless, neither writer’s debut is easily confined by the conventional definitions of either literary fiction or chick-lit: there are elements of each genre present. What is also undeniably present is the genuine reminder that, more often than not, their main characters are “a lot like you”.

“The Toronto feeling is like living in a photocopy of a real city, or a photocopy of a photocopy of a photocopy, since Chicago is a version of New York and we’re blurred Chicago,” writes Katrina Onstad. Hasty readings of How Happy To Be and The Continuity Girl might suggest that one is but a photocopy of the other, the two together with a blur of other titles bemoaning the “To Mother or Not to Mother” state of hip, urban, thirty-something working-women, but the narrative voices in these two novels ensure that each is a unique and entertaining read.

Reach beyond classification: you might be surprised by what you find.

  • Katrina Onstad. “Girl Trouble: Fear and Self-loathing in Chick Lit.” Arts Online. April 1, 2005.

** Curtis Sittenfeld. “Sophie’s Choices.” Review of Melissa Bank’s The Wonder Spot. New York Times Online. June 5, 2005.