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Agency in Adult Fiction

Yesterday I finished another of Sophie Kinsella's bestsellers in my ongoing effort to learn the secrets of comedy gold. Unfortunately, this time the only lessons I took away were negative ones.

The book of the week was The Undomestic Goddess, which has four and a half stars on Amazon.co.uk and glowing reviews from chick lit lovers everywhere. Two pages in, I hated it.

Here's the gist of the plot: Samantha Sweeting, a high-powered attorney for one of the biggest firms in London, loses a client's 50 million pounds and, subsequently, her job. Devastated, she takes a train to nowhere and ends up knocking on the door of a wealthy couple. The couple mistakes her for the new housekeeper and she lies her way into the job. Unfortunately, she doesn't know squat about cooking or cleaning. The handsome gardener finds out she's been ordering in those fabulous lunches, and he and his cottage-dwelling mother kindly keep her incompetence a secret and teach her the joys of domestic drudgery (complete with scenes of ironing lessons in which Mr. Handsome Gardener must disrobe for pedagogical purposes). Later Samantha finds out that she didn't lose the 50 million pounds; one of the partners of her firm had stolen it and covered up by framing her for a mistake she'd never made. To save face, the prestigious firm offers her a full partnership, but she declines and lives happily ever after with her muscular lover.

There are a few reasons I hated it. First, the theme song for The Nanny kept going through my head during the setup. Second, I don't find gross incompetence humorous or remotely adorable. Samantha Sweeting has always had maids at her beck and call, so at the age of 29, she has no idea how to operate a washing machine. She can't even make a sandwich and solves her problems by throwing money at them. And third, the career-woman-finds-happiness-through-domesticity theme gets on my nerves. The book presents an either/or choice for the modern woman: either you give up your femininity and your soul to make money, or you live happily ever after ironing shirts and baking fresh cakes for your prince. I thought we stopped with that nonsense decades ago.

But the real reason that I hated the book was because, while Samantha is supposed to be a genius with an IQ of 158, top of her class and the youngest ever partner of Carter Spink, she doesn't do anything. Rather, she spends the entire 371 pages having things done to her.

One of the first lessons of Fiction Writing 101: "Protags Protag." The plot of this book was driven entirely by side characters, and Samantha was just carried along for the ride. First evil lawyers manipulate her into losing her job. Then she just happens to wander onto the doorstep of a couple who mistake her for the new housekeeper, and she goes along with it. The gardener solves her dilemmas by sweeping her away for homemaking lessons with his mother. She doesn't do anything for him in return, but sits back and waits for him fall for her while feeding him half-truths about her background.

When she gets her beloved job back, you would think she would wake up and take charge...but no. Her former bosses and the British media toss her around to serve their own interests, and she just wrings her hands and frets. In the end, she takes a baby step towards independent thought by publicly embarrassing all of her colleagues at a press conference. When someone asks her directly, Are you going to be a lawyer or not?, she announces her grand decision like this:

"I...don't know," I say in despair. "I just don't know."

In effect, she never makes a decision at all. She just runs away. Then she happens to stumble into the love of her life on the train platform and they ride off into the sunset.

Sweetie, who is much better versed in gender politics than I am, calls this sort of thing "female hypoagency"—the cultural assumption that men act and women are acted upon. Samantha is primarily passive, and even when she's active, she's cowardly and ineffectual. The people who direct her fate are almost exclusively men: the evil bank-robbing partner Arthur, the sweet gardener Nathan, the steady ally Ketterson, and the jealous former love interest Guy. Even her "mistress," Trish, is portrayed without an ounce of femininity. She's crass and racist. She smokes, she shrieks, she has ridiculously bad taste in fashion, and she bosses her meek husband around. It's like Kinsella is shoving a caricature of Cinderella's stepmother in our faces and saying, "This is not how likeable women act. Likeable women are not powerful or outspoken. Likeable women are pretty and useless and spend much of their time on the verge of tears."

But hypoagency in fiction isn't exclusive to female characters. Harry Potter, for one, has very little agency at all. The Dursleys boss him around, then a giant swoops in on a flying motorcycle to carry him away, then the whole wizarding world tells him he's a hero and he learns to act the part. Throughout the series he's rescued from mortal danger by his classmates, by the mark of his mother's love, by his father's surviving friends, by his father's surviving enemies, by centaurs and Snowy Owls and gay 130-year-old headmasters. In most of the books, his heroics are secretly orchestrated by the devious Lord Voldemort or his followers. Even his weapons find him, not the other way around (his wands chose their master, the Sword of Godric Gryffindor pops out of a hat at his convenience, etc.).

There's one big difference between Harry Potter and Samantha Sweeting: Harry's adventures begin when he's 11 years old. Samantha Sweeting is 29. Children and adolescents don't have much autonomy in real life—their thoughts and actions are controlled by the peers and adults around them. So in young adult fiction, just the illusion of agency is enough. Bella Swan can sit around mooning over Edward while vampires and werewolves play tug-of-war over her baby, and teen girls will love it because they're not used to controlling their own lives anyway.

In real adult life, much of our behavior is dictated by other people, too. We make money to pay our landlords and utility companies. We dress up and work hard to please our bosses. We put on smiles to get along with our neighbors and we follow the law to avoid conflicts with the government. But in fiction, at least, adult characters should act like they have free will. They should do something.

Kinsella didn't have to make Samantha Sweeting a helpless princess who's never used a vacuum in her life. She didn't have to make her a spineless brat who runs away from her responsibilities and hides in a web of lies. There are many alternative scenarios with the same basic premise that could have worked.

  • High-powered lawyer Samantha Sweeting is fired from a prestigious City firm. Suspecting some unsavory business behind her termination, she becomes a housekeeper for the family of a wealthy banking director to reveal his evil-doings and recover her job.
  • After Samantha Sweeting loses her job at a prestigious City law firm, she moves to the country to set up an independent practice. But now that she's dropped from 500 pounds per hour to 5000 pounds per month, she needs to learn how to work the stove and fend for herself.
  • After a lifetime of doing everything her high-achieving parents expect of her, Samantha Sweeting finally decides to live for herself. She quits her stressful job at a prestigious City law firm and moves to the country to start afresh. Unfortunately, the only job opening around is for a head maid in the mansion of the village's wealthiest family. Samantha can barely spread butter on toast, but she sets out to prove her mother wrong and become the best damn housekeeper in the UK.

All of these would have given Kinsella the same material for laughs, but with a heroine who isn't a jellyfish on land. But then all of Kinsella's heroines are jellyfish, so I don't know what I was expecting. In Remember Me?, the heroine wakes up from an accident with the last three years of her memory erased, and she spends the book being pushed around by her husband, her secret lover, and her friends-turned-bullies. In Twenties Girl, the heroine is a bumbling rag doll for her dead great aunt, who's come back as a ghost to recover a family heirloom. I haven't read the Shopaholic series, but from the reviews I've seen they feature a heroine who lives for designer purses and romance and who makes the same stupid mistakes over and over.

Judging from the 4 and 5-star reviews of these books, people must like dimwitted, passive heroines. But plots and characters like these annoy the heck out of me.

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