Somewhere between "Bridget Jones's Diary," the Shopaholic series and a good, clean slap in the face is "Jennifer Johnson Is Sick of Being Single," Twin Cities author Heather McElhatton's second novel. Concocted with all the usual chick lit ingredients (even the overly processed ones), the book avoids serving up the requisite slice of fairy tale wedding cake. Instead, it delivers something more akin to a near-lethal Bloody Mary.
Jennifer is an uncomfortable, wickedly funny and ultimately likable thirtysomething single woman in suburban Minneapolis. Confronted with the weddings of her younger sister and her ex-boyfriend, she subjects herself to the indignities of Internet dating and commiserates with her gay best friend. During the day, she disappears on long Cinnabon runs while she's supposed to be at work writing copy for the Minneapolis department store chain Keller's (read: Dayton's). At night, after horrible dates, she plays God to kitschy figurines in a dollhouse she keeps in her apartment living room while longing for an easier, more romantic life -- either as a real writer or as the philanthropic wife of an heir to a fortune.
Enter Brad Keller, heir to the Keller fortune. He has the good looks, the home on Lake Minnetonka (just steps from his parents') and the family cabin on the North Shore. Jennifer's quest to land this Minneapolis Prince Charming is ridiculously quixotic, until she does land him. That's when the book moves out of its chick lit conventions and into wonderfully interesting territory.
McElhatton does a great job yanking readers around for the rest of the novel. Is this a good relationship or a bad relationship? Is Brad the problem, or is Jennifer the problem? Will she have to put up with an ultra-religious, condescending mother-in-law, or will Brad protect her? Is this what Jennifer Johnson really wants? The second half of the book fulfills the ominous tone of the cover and offers the best laugh-out-loud moments, two of which involve feminine hygiene and a drag queen named Janet Reno.
But the end is where the real magic happens. After reading it, it's just not fair to define this book as "chick lit" anymore, unless you're comfortable calling "The Graduate" a "romantic comedy."
Like she did in "Pretty Little Mistakes," her popular "do-over" novel for grownups that had more than 150 endings, McElhatton is playing on form. This new book evokes chick lit, but it's really a darker, more interesting advancement of it.
Jennifer Johnson typifies a generation of single women still stuck on an escapist fantasy, even as they've been given all the tools and opportunities to live a dream life without it. This novel, written under the rules of a fairy tale genre, brutally succeeds in showing us that the fairy tale doesn't even look good on paper anymore.
Stephanie Wilbur Ash is a writer for Electric Arc Radio Show and editor of JuiceBox, Mpls.St.Paul magazine's e-newsletter for families.