Thursday, December 6, 2007

Book Review: "Topaz Woman" by Christine Candland

I'm naturally curious about genre fiction of all kinds, especially if it involves power struggles between the sexes. From the title and the blurb, I expected Topaz Woman to be an updated Romancing the Stone. It is that (the jeweled centerpiece, let's say), but its plot is actually a string of genre pieces, each rendered with Christine Candland's unique wit and style.

We begin in a fearsome jungle -- Hollywood -- where we get an insider's view of studio grinders. We fear for main character Cassie, an English major just off the bus. But in Candland's steely take, the young woman is neither star-struck nor naive. She knows what she wants and she's willing to work relentlessly and patiently. But independent of mind as she is, Cassie can't help but fall for the guy with True Grit, godlike director Jeff McConnell, who literally rides a tall horse, keeps his hurts to himself, and glares meaningfully as a substitute for dialogue. But it's not to be, or not right away.

We segue from Day of the Locust to The Devil Wears Prada as Cassie must cope with the female studio exec from Hell. Then, with both the career and the love plots suddenly in suspense, we find ourselves in the real jungle of Brazil researching a romance about some rare stones. Another handy, helpful guy (named Bill Cody with unexplained irony) figures in this subplot, but not too much, just long enough to convince us that independent-minded Cassie is never outside the gravitational pull of a male, even if she doesn't always let herself be drawn in. Then back to Hollywood and the rest is her-story.

This book clarified something for me about chick lit and about the legacy of Jane Austen. Today's circumstances and social structure are undeniably different -- but the ultimate goal remains chillingly the same: The clever, resourceful female -- who is portrayed as (and may well be) smarter and more cunning than her male counterparts -- still regards herself as lost in polite society unless she's the better half of a power couple! Brava to Candland for her commentary on sexual politics, and here's expecting Cassie's next exploit could take her into uncharted waters...

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