Miss Understanding, by Stephanie Lessing

At first glance, Stephanie Lessing’s novel Miss Understanding looks pretty generic. A fish-out-of-water comedy set in a fashion magazine? Shades of Ugly Betty. A neurotic, obsessive heroine with a bevy of psychosomatic illnesses? Shades of Bridget Jones. A female-empowering adult-coming-of-age story featuring lots of Mean Girls-style bad behavior and a romantically mismatched couple? Shades of… well, every book ever published by Avon’s Little Black Book line or Harlequin’s Red Dress Ink. But Miss Understanding is definitely not cookie-cutter chick-lit. Some of it works, and some of it doesn’t, but it’s a very unusual book.

The novel’s heroine is a writer named Zoe, whose previous job experience consists of writing a column for a magazine called The Radical Mind. Despite the fact that she is staggeringly under-qualified, Zoe’s brother-in-law makes her the deputy editor of the Mademoiselle-esque Issues magazine, and Zoe decides that she’s going use her new position as a soapbox—one that will enable her to transform a nation of back-stabbing, image-obsessed American women into a vast, supportive sisterhood. Unfortunately, Zoe is nuts. She has a boatload of obsessive behaviors, a wildly inappropriate sense of humor, and the dress sense of a toddler. Most of the people at Issues think (with some justification) that she’s a complete idiot.

Lessing’s book strained credulity too far, too often. Zoe is simply too weird. Her brother-in-law would have to be criminally stupid to assign her a managerial role, particularly one at a fashion magazine. (Doesn’t he care about the people who work there? What if they all lose their jobs because he’s hired a sermonizing whackjob?) There’s some fun stuff—some great secondary characters and a handful of laugh-out-loud moments—but Lessing’s heroine, plot structure, and happy ending are all so unconventional that I think many readers will find them off-putting.

But while a lot of Miss Understanding is a mess, it’s an interesting mess. Like her heroine, Lessing has energy, vision, and a unique point of view. They both just need a little more respect for the conventions. Zoe’s co-workers expected a new deputy editor who was capable of keeping her shirt buttoned during staff meetings, and Ms. Lessing’s readers are going to expect a saner heroine, a more coherent plot structure, and a more satisfying happy ending. Still, those problems are fixable (unlike, say, a total dearth of creativity, which seems to be a problem for an awful lot other authors working in the genre), so I'm optimistic about what Ms. Lessing might produce in the future.
Posted by: Julia, Last edit by: Julianka


28 Oct, 2006 03:56 AM @ version 0

This looks fun--and 'Ugly Betty' is my new favorite show--so I'll def. check it out! Thanks for the tip.

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