Thursday, March 7, 2013

Book Review: Cause Celeb (1994)

Helen Fielding’s debut novel offers an unflinching social commentary about our unequal world through its protagonist, Rosie Richardson, a publicist who becomes an aid worker in war-stricken Nambula to escape a toxic relationship in her native London. When locust swarms destroy crops and threaten to overwhelm her camp with refugees, Rosie returns home to enlist celebrities in her cause. Her aim: an ad campaign that can pull in enough funds for emergency airlifts of food and medicine. Her time frame: three weeks.

Her move raises ethical and practical questions. The first questions are simple: how to convince famous people to support her project, and how to organize an advertising spot so quickly? Then come the complex issues: how to get a satellite dish and broadcast crews into an unstable region, how to do photo ops without trampling the dignity of the refugees, how to make sure that the positive effects of the campaign last beyond the presence of the Famous Club, how to make sense of all the factors that led to the crisis in the first place, and what does it mean to truly help?

Fielding answers those challenges through her characters. They represent a range of viewpoints: one co-producer declaims the effort as a neocolonialist move, an executive insists on milking the spot for all it’s worth, an actor bellows that one is obligated to help when asked, a highly educated refugee demands more consideration of the historical and sociopolitical causes of the famine, and so on. Meanwhile, thousands of starving people make their way to Rosie’s camp, which already holds hundreds of sick and hungry refugees.

In Cause Celeb, Fielding demonstrates the sparkling dialogue and brilliant characterization that propelled her Bridget Jones’ Diary into bestseller status. Every character in Cause Celeb is flawed and outrageous. Fielding paints the British personalities with vivid brush strokes of arrogance, neediness, shallowness, nobility, eccentricity, and charm. The staff and some of the refugees at Rosie’s camp receive the same treatment: they can be insufferable and odd, but the author writes them with affection.

Only Rosie develops to any significant degree, starting out as an uncertain and star-struck young woman and then becoming a determined, steely “harridan,” in the words of an aid officer. That makes sense because she’s the lead, and it contributes to a more compact story that equally respects her individual struggles as a young woman, and the plot that revolves around the hardships endured by far too many humans who have the misfortune of being born on the wrong side of the first world/third world divide. Rosie even acts as a reader stand-in when she considers the powerful effect that celebrities have when it comes to engaging people around a complex problem.

The novel also makes observations about the incompetence of large, bureaucratic organizations; the ease with which some problems could be solved, if only the political will existed; the difficulty of disengaging from romantic ties; etc. While Bridget Jones’ Diary is a superior work in terms of characterization, pacing, structure, and humor, Cause Celeb stands on firm ground as a gentle satire. It’s an easy read, so go ahead and add it to your summer reading list!