Shop 'til you drop

Fans, own obsession keep British author writing shopaholic adventure series

— Sophie Kinsella was sitting in a cafe in Wimbledon village, talking about dropping off her young son for his first day at school. She seemed a world away from Becky Bloomwood, the somewhat self-centered fashion addict of Kinsella's wildly successful "Shopaholic" novels.

But then she leaned across the table to confess: "You know, this area is great for shopping. It's very dangerous for me."

As Becky would note, Kinsella was wearing a flowered summer Cacharel frock, Jasper Conran kitten heel shoes and fondling a light pink leather holdall "picked up on a European holiday."

She knows how to shop.

Kinsella also knows how to tell a good tale. Her three accounts of the travails of the budget-deficient big spender Becky Bloomwood are best sellers around the world, translated into some 34 languages -- including Latvian, Thai, Japanese and Dutch.

The Washington Post has called her writing "sharp ... well drawn ... very funny," USA Today says she provides "hijinks worthy of classic 'I Love Lucy' episodes" and Entertainment Weekly says she "gives chick-lit lovers a reason to stay home from the mall."

Devotees have followed the slightly ditsy Becky and her credit cards through three books -- "Confessions of a Shopaholic," "Shopaholic Takes Manhattan" and "Shopaholic Ties the Knot" -- anecdotes of a single girl in London, her financial strife, the beginning of a romance, a sojourn in New York and an eventual marriage.

Kinsella had planned to leave the series a neat trilogy.

"But I kept getting letters from readers asking, 'Where's Becky?' 'What's she doing?' 'How's her honeymoon going?' It was like being asked about a mutual friend," Kinsella said. "So I started thinking, 'How is she? How's the honeymoon going? What did she buy?"'

Unintended sequel

As it turns out, quite a lot -- and the extravagant purchases are frowned upon by Becky's newly found, frugal half-sister, Jess. That's the central premise of the just recently published "Shopaholic & Sister." The novel continues Kinsella's themes of secret-keeping and bluffing her way out of a tricky situation -- Becky consistently lies to her husband about her purchases and at one point entertains a roomful of children by taking off her bra.

Kinsella, a dark-haired 34-year-old who shares her main character's exuberance and some of her quirkiness, acknowledges the heightened sense of reality in her work, but said that Becky is an everywoman.

"She is universal in a way because she thinks the same thoughts that we all do but she does think one or two steps or 10 steps further," she said. "It's fun, what you wouldn't do yourself, but maybe you would if you were in absolute extreme circumstances. And that's what she finds herself in all the time."

Susan Kamil, editorial director at Dial Press, said Kinsella has created an eternally optimistic character who cuts across the generations and bonds women with her love of shopping, an activity often shared among women.

"She's managed to take this girl group activity in life and turn it into this kind of exuberant, joyful experience as you read," Kamil said. "This character not only is fresh and original because she somehow seems to span the generations but she kind of is also a cementing force among women."

Kamil said she laughed out loud when she first read the book alone in her office. "This character's voice, and her take on the world and her rationalization and her poignancy and her endearingness were so clear," she said. "She goes right from the page into your heart and you embrace her instantly."

Real women

Kinsella said she created Becky because she wanted to see real women, with modern worries and concerns, in print.

"If you look back at books of the '80s, ... they were all about women in shoulder pads, often coming from a poverty-stricken background, forming a multinational company and taking over the world while having sex in lots of glamorous locations, sometimes with goldfish," she said. "You gobbled them up, but you didn't think, 'Oh this is like me.' It was like reading about aliens."

Kinsella was working as a financial journalist on a pensions magazine "taking the longest lunch hours known to mankind" when she wrote her first novel in her spare time, using her real name, Madeleine Wickham. She had moderate success with a handful of books, largely set in the country and detailing the lives of villagers in their 30s and 40s.

When she conceived the racier, first-person, present-tense style of the "Shopaholic" books, she decided a new pen name was appropriate and took on her middle name and her mother's maiden name.

She now holds a place at the top of a genre largely acknowledged to have been kicked off by Helen Fielding's "Bridget Jones' Diary." Book stores devote entire sections to the brightly colored tomes about young independent women in the city and their love lives, weight issues and other worries.

The genre is often dismissed by heavyweight reviewers, but Kinsella is comfortable with the chick-lit tag.

"I know fellow authors who don't like the term," she said. "To me it just means something which is fun to read, has got some kind of modern heroine and is fun, entertaining and might just have a happy ending," she laughs.

"Just because you are interested in frivolous things, doesn't mean that you can't be bright and have great ideas and the rest of it."


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