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Shopgirl: A Novella

A book by Steve Martin

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Sleeping Beauty Wakes Up in Beverly Hills

  • Nov 21, 2000
  • by
A little while ago a certain e-mail made the rounds. It contained the fictitious story of a certain man and woman and their totally divergent reactions to the woman's observation that they have been dating exclusively for six months - she immediately blames herself for putting too much pressure on him, he only takes note of the fact that six months is a long time between tune-ups. It says all it needs to about the war between the sexes in some three pages - Shopgirl says more or less the same thing in 130.

Mind you, it's a charming story and rather touching in its way - the characters are cute (a little confused but they mean extremely well), and what happens to them is exactly what I'd like to have happen to me - but at times it feels a little empty. It's kind of like cotton candy; sweet, but too much air for not enough substance.

On the other hand, if the story is a little thin, that fact gives the language a lot more agility than we usually find in romances. The narrator skips from character to character, scene to scene, leaping over months of incident without even a mention. He (or she) interrupts the story frequently to explain the differences between the characters' beliefs and the story's reality, making statements like "What neither of them understands is that these conversations are meaningless." Makes the whole thing read like a sociological study of modern urban mating habits, when it doesn't read like an updated fairy tale with Mirabelle as a barely ambulatory Sleeping Beauty and Ray as a miscast Prince Charming. (It's worth noting that the identity of the real Prince Charming is a nice little surprise.)

Despite (or maybe because of) this veering between academic commentary and 21st-century myth, the narrator is undoubtedly the book's most intriguing character. One gets a notion of him as a kind of combination radio psychologist and guardian angel, watching out for these people, making sure they learn the lessons they need to learn for their happiness' sake without getting hurt too much in the process. And they do, in fact, learn their lessons with minimal pain. Doesn't make for a very dramatic story - what it does do is allow us to live a pleasant secondhand life for a couple of hours before getting back to the blood and guts of our real lives, and there's nothing so wrong about that, after all.

I remember back in the early 80's when Steve Martin first came to national prominence, with his whole "Excuuuse Me" routine - I never would have guessed in those days that that wise guy could write a fluffy piece of whimsy like Shopgirl, but then he made "L.A. Story" and "Parenthood" (another couple of stories about quirky people in looking-glass worlds), and Shopgirl makes a lot more sense. Steve Martin has moved in a few years from telling sarcastic stories about freaks to telling oh-so-sympathetic stories about good-hearted lost souls. And these stories feel good, like a picnic in the park with your sweetie on a warm spring day, and they last about that long in the mind. Great literature it's not, but it goes down quick and it makes you smile. That's not only harmless, it's probably necessary.

Benshlomo says, A little candy never hurt anybody.

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More Shopgirl: A Novella reviews
review by . March 10, 2011
Shopgirl: A Slice of Life Peek Behind the Glove Counter
I recently finished rereading Shopgirl, by Steve Martin (yes, he of King Tut fame). I'd first read it years ago and had found it depressing. This time I felt differently.      I was a little ashamed that I'd once found the heroine, Mirabelle Buttersfield, to be pathetic. But then, upon first meeting her I'd been naive enough to believe that life should fit into neat little boxes of accomplishment and overall well-being to be considered successful. And nothing about …
review by . July 09, 2006
While Steve Martin is acknowledged as a comedy genius and a superb actor, I was surprised to learn of his talents as a writer of stories about average people. Mirabelle is the title character, she works at the glove counter of Neiman Marcus in Los Angeles. Since few people buy gloves anymore, most of her workday is spent trying to make them pass. She grew up in Vermont and suffers from depression and relationship problems. Specifically, she has no significant relationships with members of the opposite …
review by . January 21, 2001
This book was one of the rare few that manages to both digust me and delight me at the same time. This is not a light book by any means. I was expecting it to be, so I sort of got knocked out by it. I alternated between hating the main character (Mirabelle),wishing she'd get herself together and completely sympathizing with her (and her deep depression) in a way I haven't been able to with any other character in any other book. Martin is a great writer, and manages to blend humor with the serious …
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Steve Martin's first foray into fiction is as assured as it is surprising. Set in Los Angeles, its fascination with the surreal body fascism of the upper classes feels like the comedian's familiar territory, but the shopgirl of the book's title may surprise his fans. Mirabelle works in the glove department of Neiman's, "selling things that nobody buys any more." Spending her days waiting for customers to appear, Mirabelle "looks like a puppy standing on its hind legs, and the two brown dots of her eyes, set in the china plate of her face, make her seem very cute and noticeable." Lonely and vulnerable, she passes her evenings taking prescription drugs and drawing "dead things," while pursuing an on-off relationship with the hopeless Jeremy, who possesses "a slouch so extreme that he appears to have left his skeleton at home." Then Mr. Ray Porter steps into Mirabelle's life. He is much older, rich, successful, divorced, and selfish, desiring her "without obligation." Complicating the picture is Mirabelle's voracious rival, her fellow Neiman's employee Lisa, who uses sex "for attracting and discarding men."

The mutual incomprehension, psychological damage, and sheer vacuity practiced by all four of Martin's characters sees Shopgirl veer rather uncomfortably between a comedy of manners and a much darker work. There are some startling passages of description and interior monologue, but the...

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ISBN-10: 0786866586
ISBN-13: 978-0786866588
Author: Steve Martin
Genre: Fiction, Novella
Publisher: Hyperion
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