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 Mirabelle fits into anything. A twenty-eight-year-old artist with a master's degree, she works behind the glove counter at Neiman Marcus in Los Angeles, selling "things no one buys anymore." She considers her real calling to be her art, which she works on at night. She has massive student loan debt and drives a truck that's falling apart. She suffers from depression. With no boyfriend and no real friends, she is ripe for a one-night stand with Jeremy, an incredibly immature twenty-six-year-old amplifier stenciler she met at the laundromat. Well, maybe one-night stand isn't the right word. Mirabelle has been out with Jeremy once before, and even as she invites him to her apartment, it isn't so much the sex she's seeking as it is a chance to be held.
Not too much later something odd happens. Mirabelle receives a package at her apartment. Inside is a pair of Dior gloves she sold to a fifty-something millionaire named Ray Porter just days before. Then Ray appears at Neiman's and asks her to dinner. On the surface, this turn of events has all the makings of a modern-day fairy tale. But Shopgirl isn't that kind of story. Instead, Martin plunges us into a slice-of-life tale short on plot and big on character. He exposes Ray Porter's mind, revealing him to be, like Mirabelle, on a journey of self-discovery, albiet via a different path. Ray wants to sleep with Mirabelle, but he doesn't want to be her boyfriend. He wants to be able to sleep with other women and tells Mirabelle as much. In a romantic comedy, such traits would make Ray a monster. But in this story he's a guy being up front with a girl who needs more but pretends that she doesn't, if only to hang on to the small bits of himself that he offers. Despite this lack of commitment, Mirabelle continues to see Ray. She likes to be taken care of, likes having something to look forward to, and given her circumstances, it would be cruel of us to blame her.
As with all doomed relationships, Mirabelle and Ray's plays out far longer than it should, finally ending, not in a scene, but because the end is inevitable. Mirabelle moves to San Francisco, having asked Ray to get her an interview for a receptionist job at an art gallery. As in the way of life, her transition is bumpy. She becomes involved with an artist who treats her badly. Her new job is as boring as her old one, but it has the benefit of putting her in touch with the art world, which is important as she pursues her drawing. Also, Jeremy has resurfaced.
After a chance meeting with Mirabelle at a gallery opening back in LA, Jeremy realized that he missed her, and she, in turn, realized that he'd changed. In the interim, Jeremy had gone on tour with a band in an effort to help sell more amplifiers. He listened to the band's entire library of self-help books on tape, an experience that helped him to mature significantly. Also, he evolved into a businessman of some note, the amplifier gig having been a success. This might all sound a bit tidy, but strangely it isn't. If anything, Jeremy's metamorphosis ties right in with Shopgirl's overarching theme of growing up.
Jeremy contacts Mirabelle by sending her a clumsily-wrapped but appealing Swatch watch in a poignant parallel to Ray's earlier gesture with the gloves. But whereas the gloves symbolized Ray's power over Mirabelle, the Swatch is more of an equal-footing peace offering. Jeremy and Mirabelle's relationship grows slowly, beginning as friendship before finally blossoming into the kind of relationship that Mirabelle has always wanted. The gradualness of it makes it sweet rather than saccharine, believable rather than canned.
As for Ray, he and Mirabelle stay in touch for awhile. Over time, he becomes a friend. He pays off her debts and continues to send her money every now and then - not because she's some sort of kept woman, but because he's come to think of himself as her parent and he knows she needs it.
For all its melancholy, Shopgirl delivers a well-earned happy ending made genuine by all the very real trouble that has come before it.
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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...