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Belfast Telegraph Home > Lifestyle > Special Interest

Books: Women's best friend

By Grania McFadden

19 June 2004

OPEN up the pages of any Marian Keyes novel and straightaway you'll find yourself among friends - women who worry about their parents, their jobs and the spot on their chins; who simultaneously hope for world peace, an end to poverty and that rather fetching leather jacket from Whistles.

When you meet Keyes in person, you know at once that this is the woman you want to be your new best friend. Witty, engaging, self-deprecating and direct, she embodies the qualities that make her fictional characters so likeable.

More than most writers today, Keyes knows what it is that makes women tick.

Her feelgood stories are set in the real world, where ordinary women struggle with the problems that beset us all - faithless lovers, crap jobs, fat knees and an alarming addiction to M&Ms, for example.

Although her richly comic storylines inevitably wind their way to happy endings, Keyes weaves a melancholy undercurrent which whispers of loss, guilt, jealousy and disappointment.

We may want to live our lives as though they were an episode from Friends, but Keyes speaks of the reality of laddered tights, leaking roofs, broken hearts and too much chocolate. Her new novel, The Other Side of the Story, takes the reader into the cut-throat world of book publishing where authors compete with each other for shelf space and agents vie to find the next bestseller.

Jojo, a feisty American agent - sassy, sexy but not skinny (not even Americans can have it all) - struggles to make deals while shagging her married boss.

Lily is one of Jojo's best-selling authors. Her literary success is tempered by the guilt she feels for stealing her best friend's lover. Lily knows it's only a matter of time before Gemma comes looking for that which is rightfully hers - and steals it back.

As for Gemma, she's struggling with a different family crisis. Her father has left home with his (much) younger secretary. Gemma's been forced to put her job as events organiser to one side to look after her shell-shocked mother.

Keyes allows each women to narrate their stories in turn, and the plot unravels along parallel lines. The characters are seen from all angles, with all of their flaws, as they struggle to find their place in the scheme of things.

All this and some barbed comments about glass ceilings, an alarming look at female hair loss, and the utter joy which accompanies the purchase of a good handbag, a great pair of boots or some expensive skincare.

Jojo is battling for a partnership within her publishing firm. Lily longs for a hairweave and an end to the responsibility of writing.

Gemma wants her man back - and her dad, for that matter. In the meantime she rehearses the feeling of triumph she's sure she'll have when her revenge on Lily is complete.

There are so many laughs to be had here, that it's easy to overlook Keyes' underlying seriousness.

"I think of myself as a comic, accessible writer," she said. "But now I'm being taken more seriously, which is deeply gratifying. I don't mind it when people dismiss me as fluffy, but I've always had something worthwhile to say."

Those who dismiss Keyes as a chick-lit writer would do well to note that she's the only Irish author apart from James Joyce to be translated into Russian.

Catherine Zeta-Jones is vying for the title role in a film adaption of Keyes' last novel, and the writer is today one of the richest women in the country.

Keyes is an ardent feminist who believes the scrubbed-faced, men-hating, radical pioneers of the past may have done today's women a disservice.

"We should never have forsaken our feminine characteristics," she says. "We shouldn't deny who we are. We should go to meetings in pink fluffy dresses, and show that just because we like these things doesn't mean we are somehow not worthy of consideration.

"I don't want to sound ranty, but I want to make people think. Women still do all the invisible work. We still don't earn as much as mean. We still don't attain the positions of power that men do. Why is that?

"I'd like to give feminism a makeover, and show that we don't need to give

up the things we like. There's no harm in them, and that's the way it is."

And that's why Keyes' characters are so likeable. Gemma invents elaborate scenarios in which she wins back her lover..

Jojo realises her affair is doomed when her rival in love appears in exactly the jacket she wanted to buy.

Lily realises her partner's love is practically unshakeable when he buys her a Jo Malone travel kit, the Everest of wish-I-had female accessories.

And if that doesn't tell you everything you need to know about today's women then you're probably a man.

The Other Side of The Story by Marian Keyes, Poolbeg £19.99

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