Book review: Call Waiting by Michelle Cunnah

the cover of the book

America's answer to Bridget Jones flops spectacularly, in a book that is an embarrassment to read for any fans of the Chick lit genre or Helen Fielding.

The story

Emma Taylor, irritating thirtyone-year-old resident of New York with a plastic surgeon father and a British top human rights lawyer mother, is doing very well for herself. She's been promoted within her advertising company, she has a group of loving friends, and she is in a very successful, very adult relationship with her step-uncle architect (unhealthy! the step uncle bit, not the architect bit.). What could possibly go wrong?

Firstly, she's worried about her figure. It's tragic being four foot eleven and thin, with small boobs. Secondly, all of her friends and family are having crises. Thirdly, there's trouble at work. And, most worrying, her boyfriend Jack's boss, the tall, blonde and beautiful Claire Palmer, who is actively looking to steal Jack away.

When Emma's great Aunt Alice, one of the original suffragettes, dies unexpectedly, it throws her life into greater turmoil. There's an inheritance that Emma needs to prove herself worthy to get. But how? And will she loose Jack in the process?

The style

Awful, awful, awful, awful. Cringeworthy, I might go so far as to say. I'd like to clarify here that I only put it in the Chick lit genre because it would probably live there in bookstores, not because there is anything even vaguely literary about it. But why? I hear you demanding. What is so wrong with it? The problem mainly hinges around this point: while imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, the Bridget Jones-esque-ness of Call Waiting was, frankly, embarrassing. There was none of Helen Fielding's sly humour, none of her intelligence, none of her unique characterisation without succumbing to stereotypes, and none of her not-quite-too-over-the-top-ness. And what a blatant rip off it was. Written in an extremely similar, diary style form in the first person, the story was in no way as authentic and came across as affected and trying too hard. Allow me to gather my thoughts and set down in point form exactly why Emma Taylor will never be Bridget Jones:

  • Emma Taylor, with her four foot eleven stature, her "I'm too thin and my boobs are too small" whinge, is not going to be endearing to many average women. Bridget worried about her weight in an entertaining way, and came to self-acceptance with style and consideration. Emma is an annoying, short American.
  • When a character is diarising, listing how hot they look in their Donna Karen T-shirt which shows off their sculpted abs and delicate shoulders is not the way to authenticity. Can you imagine sitting down and writing something like that in a journal? I can't. Except for a joke, obviously. And it wasn't.
  • Emma's friends are laughably two-dimensional takeoffs of Bridget's friends. Just because Cunnah changed them slightly - i.e., took out all the cleverness, put them all in functional relationships, and changed them into Americans - doesn't mean they're going to be as dynamic and wonderful as Bridget's friends. She even went so far as to have the staunch feminist and the gay guy... it was so obvious and awful!
  • Emma IS NOT ENGLISH. So Cunnah cannot get away with using the Bridget-isms under the guise of both-characters-are-from-the-same-place. I've met people in their thirties who moved countries when they are teenagers - they mainly have a very slight accent and don't put on airs. However, Emma runs around talking about "mini-breaks" - extremely English and EXTREMELY Bridget Jones - and encountering Tony Blair at a funeral. It's not even America's answer to Bridget Jones, it's more like lazy writing.
  • Speaking of meeting Tony Blair, the scrapes that Emma gets into, unlike the scrapes that Bridget gets into, are just not funny. They are contrived, difficult, and either too out-there or not out-there enough. The circumstance of Jack's boss trying to steal him away? Taken to stupid, unfunny lengths - AND is a poor rip-off of one of the characters in Bridget Jones's diary. Any reader of Bridget Jones's Diary will know that Bridget, underneath all her external silliness and ridiculous circumstances, was an intelligent, lovable, and suffering thirty something in the contemporary British society. She worried about silly things, she spent a lot of time with her foot in her mouth, but she was written with honesty and compassion and readers could sympathise with her and laugh with her. Emma Taylor, on the other hand, leaves one impression. That she's an idiot. And the fact that her boyfriend's boss treats her like an idiot? Deserved.
  • Emma Taylor allegedly comes from a long line of proud feminists; her Great Aunt Alice chained herself to a fence with Emmeline Pankhurst, and her mother is a "top human rights lawyer" (where have I heard that phrase before??). Okay, fine. Bridget and her friends lived out current debates about what it means to be feminist, female and feminine in today's world. Emma just blathers on about it with embarrassingly little knowledge, and sounds like a ditsy highschool student. If the author was going to introduce these issues, she should have actually done her research and found out what feminism MEANS. Because the ending, where Emma lives out the conditions of Alice's will, are atrocious.

Okay, enough of the rampaging. This book is immensely disappointing, because firstly, it's terrible, and secondly, Cunnah ripped off Helen Fielding and made a complete mess of it. I'm sure this book could have been a decent read, had it been done in a myriad of different ways. Cunnah may have chosen the easy way out, but certainly not the good way out.

Who is this book for?

People who like me are in a second hand bookstore looking for trash to read at the beach, and encounter it as the best of a bad bunch without knowing anything about it. Or, nobody. Or, people who found Bridget Jones's Diary a little too British and highbrow. Or, people who want to be offended by Chick "lit" trash.

If you like this book, you would also like...

Please, PLEASE read Bridget Jones's Diary and remember that it was written first. And/or anything else by Helen Fielding. You don't know what you're missing.

In short

Title: Call Waiting
Author: Michelle Cunnah
Publisher: Avon Trade">Avon Trade
ISBN: 0060560363
Year published: 2004
Pages: 307
Genre(s): Airport novel, Fiction, Chick lit