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Review: Cents and Sensibility by Maggie Alderson

cens and sensibility alderson Review: Cents and Sensibility by Maggie Alderson

In my review of Liane Moriartys The Last Anniversary I mused on the seemingly endless chick lit spectrum, and the vast differences that can be evident between books in this genre. Maggie Aldersons Cents and Sensibility offers rather a striking contrast to Moriartys light but thoughtful book. Where Moriarty sought the unusual in the typical, gave us a series of characters who feel warm and familiar, and kept her setting narrow and almost parochial, Aldersons novel flinches away from all of this, offering instead characters who neatly fit the various cliched archetypes of this genre, a liberal sprinkling of brand names, expensive real estate and jetsetting lifestyles, and womanising alpha males in spades. Where Moriartys work has a dark undercurrent, Aldersons has little undercurrent at all, being instead all about the froth and the spume: the sort of stuff youre after if youre planted under a beach umbrella.


Stella Montecourt-Fain believes her double-barrelled surname, with all of its connotations, to be rather a hindrance when it comes to climbing the rungs of the journalistic world. Unfortunately, despite using only the (rather apt) Fain part of her name as some sort of egalitarian plea, Stella finds herself spinning her wheels writing fluff for the luxury and celebrity pages rather than working as an on-the-ground reporter in Iraq or Afghanistan. As a result, Stella is a star pupil when it comes to world politics, but receives a failing grade when it comes to the lifestyles of the rich and famous (and no doubt has something to do with her lack of promotion to date). Of course, Stellas poor knowledge comes into play when she finds herself wooing a chap called Jay Fisher, without having any clue as to the fact that he is in fact the very eligible, the very Forbes-wealthy, and the very tabloid-worthy Jay Fisher of Fisher family fame . Family politics and clashing lifestyle preferences abound before coming to a head and resulting in some dramatic choices and changes.

My thoughts

While'Cents and Sensibility doesnt promise to deliver anything more than a fun and fluffy chick-lit read, the book focuses rather more on the cents than on the sensibility side of things, resulting in what can be a truly bewildering read to those who like a little consistency when it comes to characterisation and plot. Perhaps the elements of the book most problematic here is the bizarrely ambivalent and contradictory protagonist Stella, who raves incessantly about her love of journalism and her work, rails against layabout Jay for suggesting that she take a day off, and highlights the importance of earning ones own money, but then shows utter ignorance of the particular luxury field to which she has been assigned, spends her days lunching and gossiping, and lives in a home purchased by her father. Stella delights, apparently, in being a modern woman, yet is stunted in so many ways, and towards the end of the novel makes several decisions that feel entirely out of character and that contradict entirely her vehemently professed values. As a reader, its difficult not to feel frustrated by the lack of logic and cohesion here, particularly in the case of the final few chapters, which, to be honest, left me utterly flabbergasted.

Stellas bizarre and confused ambivalence when it comes to love, relationships, career, and her own identity, may perhaps in part be attributed to her odd family upbringing, which entails a never-ending parade of step-mothers and a veritable school of step- and half-siblings. Stellas father is, like just about every male in this book (other than the stereotypical flamboyant gay best friend), an alpha male who collects women like theyre going out of style, and then dumps them unceremoniously when they inevitably do. Perhaps its this undeniably dysfunctional background, with its suspiciously cult-like habits and rituals, that underpins Stellas sudden capitulation to her equally awful and infantile alpha male lover. But try as I might to explain away Stellas character and behaviour in such a way, it just doesnt ring true. Few of the characters, including Stellas father and Stellas lover, extend beyond stereotypes, and Alderson habitually plays them rather 'painfully against each other in ways that are equally as stereotyped, resulting in long, snide exchanges, cruel jokes, and conniving plots and plans, all of which Id happily accept in an episode of Passions, but which make a 500 page novel grind along in the rather alarming manner of a train attempting to travel on tracks of the wrong gauge.

The farcical element of the book, Im afraid, doesnt quite work, either. Stella references Roman Holiday, attempting to place herself in the role of the hapless journalist, and lover Jay in Audrey Hepburns role, but where the farce in Roman Holiday encouraged adequate suspension of disbelief, Cents and Sensibility relies on the utter obliviousness of wannabe investigative journalist Stella in order to work. Somehow it feels a little odd that a reporter who is entirely up to speed on foreign affairs and international politics can fail to realise that'Jays interchangeable sports cars, his constant fleeing from the paparazzi, and the substantial portfolio to which he refers on many an occasion may indicate that he comes from a rather privileged background. And Jay himself is problematic, too. Given the role of the buffoon for much of the book, he is little more than a layabout rich kid, and his utterly childish, self-obsessed reaction to Stellas desire to, oh, lead a life that extends beyond him in any way at all, strikes me as something of a warning sign. (Me alpha male. You no work silly little job! Me no want woman with brain! You my plaything!) Even when Jay nominally redeems himself by admitting his problems, he doesnt really do anything to change (other than giving up his inheritance, which bodes well for the future, given that his entire experience of the workplace effectively comprises sending flowers to Stella) , and yet Stella accepts his whiningly facetious apology without question.


With Cents and Sensibility I was all geared up for a light and fluffy chick lit involving fashion, journalism/advertising, and the standard oh-silly-you! character foibles so typical of this genre. After all, these things are par for the course in this genre, and are what makes it what it is. However, the weak, contradictory, and sometimes highly problematic, characterisation in this book, combined with the poorly motivated plotting, have a significant effect on what might otherwise have been a light, fun read. And if youre anything like me, you might find yourself frothing a touch at the mouth at the ending.

Rating: star Review: Cents and Sensibility by Maggie Aldersonstar Review: Cents and Sensibility by Maggie Aldersonblankstar Review: Cents and Sensibility by Maggie Aldersonblankstar Review: Cents and Sensibility by Maggie Aldersonblankstar Review: Cents and Sensibility by Maggie Alderson (okay)

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Other books by Maggie Alderson:

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