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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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...