Tweeting, Facebook status updates, emails, texts, Google searches, online chat ... if you're going to set a novel right now can you ignore the electronic litter of everyday life? Probably not. So the challenge is to find a way to fit modern communications into a narrative without it feeling clunky. Or to use them boldly as a device to drive your story forward. In Wife 22 (HarperCollins, $34.99) US author Melanie Gideon does the latter, mostly with aplomb.
This is the story of a marriage gone stale. Alice Buckle has been with her advertising executive husband William for 20 years, has two kids and a bad case of ennui. That's one of the reasons she ends up secretly taking part in an anonymous online marriage survey. At first it seems like a harmless diversion but the questions that come from the researcher force her to look back over her life and re-evaluate it.
A frustrated playwright whose kids are growing up, Alice is at the age her mother was when she died and is feeling vulnerable. Her husband has lost his job, she thinks her son is gay and worries her daughter is anorexic. Encouraged by the researcher, she gives increasingly detailed responses to the marriage survey questions. She writes of her and William's courtship, the birth of her children, her great professional failure.
It's been a long time since anyone has paid her so much attention or cared to hear of her hopes and regrets. Alice forms a bond with her researcher. She friends him on Facebook, finds herself flirting with him, even makes plans to meet.
There's a twist in the tale that I expect you'll see coming from pages away but still I'm not going to spoil it. Wife 22 has already been optioned by Working Title Films - which made Bridget Jones' Diary - and in fact, has been widely compared to Helen Fielding's best-seller. I found it painfully contemporary at times. I'm not convinced Gideon needed to festoon the story with quite so many status updates, text spellings or sections written like scenes from plays. It makes for a jerky sort of read.
That said, it is amusing, inventive, thoughtful and an enjoyable read on the whole. Gideon's technique of giving us Alice's responses to the researcher, but not the original questions, keeps things intriguing. And there's a good support cast of characters from Alice's gay best friend, Nedra, to her quirky son Peter.
If it was time for chick lit to get a makeover then Gideon has done an enthusiastic job of it. Wife 22 is completely "of the moment" despite its themes being timeless - the difficulties of keeping a marriage interesting, the pitfalls of parenthood, etc.
If you don't have a Facebook profile or Twitter account you may struggle to make sense of the book at times. Even for keen social networkers I'd say there's a limit to how much of this stuff can be tolerated within the pages of a novel. It may be fresh right now but it could get old really quickly ...