At Teddy's Berry Street diner in Williamsburg, Kate Christensen is fighting a hangover. Looking tired and a bit wan, she slips out of her fake-fur coat and orders a Bloody Mary. It turns out she was up until three last night, carousing at a musician friend's dinner party, lingering over a nightcap or two at a Metropolitan Avenue dive. "Usually I drink vodka," she says. In fact, Christensen is such a connoisseur that she concocts her own. "Ginger vodka, horseradish vodka," she says, flagging the waiter for a pot of tea to use as a chaser. "I'm trying out all kinds."
Except for her wedding ring, the 36-year-old Christensen is a lot like Claudia Steiner, the vodka-swilling heroine of In the Drink, her first novel, which Doubleday is publishing in May. And though Claudia lives in a ratty Upper West Side studio instead of a Notting Hill flat, she happens to be a lot like Bridget Jones.
You have, of course, heard of Bridget, the self-obsessed centerpiece of Bridget Jones's Diary and the brainchild of former London Independent columnist Helen Fielding. Daily dispatches from Bridget's life, written in diary form and beginning with calories consumed, alcohol units imbibed, and Silk Cuts smoked, made Fielding's quirky column a sensation in England. In 1996, she gathered them into a book. And while she took pains to distance herself from her character, there were certain undeniable parallels: Like Bridget, Helen worked in television, chain-smoked, and enjoyed the occasional drink. A short blonde with a pixie hairdo, she came off in TV appearances like your sweet, slightly feckless sister-in-law. In Britain, her book sold over a million copies.
Shortly afterward, Viking raced both Fielding and Jones across the Atlantic, where they stirred a similar sensation. Bridget Jones's Diary leaped onto the New York Times best-seller list and remained there for seventeen weeks. Despite a few cultural discrepancies, many American women embraced the character with giddy self-recognition. She was a kind of resilient anti-heroine who veered between the pathetic and the courageous in her quest for love, sex, and an acceptable pair of opaque black stockings. In America, as in England, Bridget was embraced as an iconic thirtysomething Everywoman.
Naysayers, not surprisingly, dismissed her as an appalling bundle of feeble neuroses. In a cover story last June on the state of feminism, Time held Bridget up as an example of how far the institution has fallen. By then, however, it was too late. Bridget had already inched her way into countless Mexican beach bags, Upper East Side book clubs, and NYU dorms, inducting terms like Smug Married (blissfully happy member of a couple), Emotional Fuckwittage (stress associated with unreliable boyfriend), and Singleton (a woefully unattached character) into the lexicon. Today there are dozens of Bridget reading groups, a Website, several fan clubs. Fielding is currently at work on the screenplay and, of course, the sequel. "It's much more than a book," exults her U.S. editor, Pamela Dorman. "When you say Bridget, it conjures up a whole world."
It's a world that's about to get a whole lot bigger. Long before Fielding arrived Stateside, Candace Bushnell had laid the groundwork by parlaying her pseudo-autobiographical New York Observer columns about Manhattan's sex-obsessed swell set into a best-selling book, Sex and the City, and an HBO series, now shooting its second season. Laura Zigman's Animal Husbandry covered some of the same terrain. But it was Fielding's smash success that ignited this particular frenzy. Now the sullen Gen-Xers and self-indulgent soul-bearers of the past few years are giving way to the lit world's newest prototype: a barrage of single, urban women, late twenties to late thirties, who struggle with loneliness and success with the help of a caustic sense of humor (and more than a few glasses of Chardonnay.)
In addition to Christensen's In the Drink, there is Melissa Bank's The Girls' Guide to Hunting and Fishing and Suzanne Finnamore's Otherwise Engaged. This summer will also see the debuts of Amy Sohn's Run Catch Kiss, Clare Naylor's Love: A User's Guide, and Sue Margolis's Neurotica, among others. Their publishers are frantically hatching marketing campaigns (from seminars on the single girl to bride-to-be Web promotions) in an effort to replicate Bridget's success while struggling to get out from under her approximately 123-pound shadow.