Fielding ditches Bridget for Bin Laden

By Becky Gottel

In most circles, Osama bin Laden is not known as an international playboy. However, in Helen Fielding’s world of travel, comedy and terrorism, her heroine Olivia Joules encounters one of America’s most wanted men and finds him to be somewhat sexy and aloof.

As a Fielding fan, I would have read whatever she wrote after Bridget Jones’s Diary and Cause Celeb (written before Fielding had a Bridget Jones movie and had landed on college syllabi) regardless of the topic. Skepticism did not hold me back as I cracked open “Olivia Joules and the Overactive Imagination,” even though the plot revolved around a fashion reporter fighting an international terrorist ring.

Fielding ably creates a romantic-comic-spy novel while teetering between the lines of political correctness and being banned from book clubs. Can a heroine kiss a man whom she suspects of being a terrorist? In this case, yes. Don’t worry – she doesn’t turn the world on its side – the bad guys lose and the good girl still wins.

Olivia Joules is particularly refreshing and up-to-date after too many chick-lit books about a bumbling but lovable woman who falls for the wrong guy and then lands in the arms of Mr. Right. Admittedly, I panicked that Fielding had gone off the deep end when the book opened with the following exchange:

“The problem with you, Olivia, is that you have an overactive imagination.”

“I don’t,” said Olivia Joules indignantly.

Barry Wilkinson, foreign editor of the Sunday Times, leaned back in his chair, trying to hold in his paunch, staring over his half-moon glasses at the disgruntled little figure before him, and thinking: And you’re too damned cute.

Luckily, this exchange only serves as a reminder of what other authors would be writing. Fielding steers away from convention and redeems herself with a competent heroine. Yes, Olivia is cute, but she doesn’t roll out of bed that way. Yes, the occasional attractive terrorist interests her, but she realizes that self-reliance is her greatest strength. Yes, she carries a hatpin in her pocket survival kit to stab attackers, but she successfully uses it, so that can’t be considered the hallmark of an overactive imagination.

Fielding also keeps the book compellingly comic while touching on serious current events. Olivia Joule’s overactive imagination, as referenced in the title, plays a key role in lightening the situation. When she believes she’s met bin Laden, it is easy to question her sanity as her best friend does:

“You’re sure it’s not a resurrected Abraham Lincoln?”

“Shut up,” said Olivia. “But seriously. Just think about it. Where better could they hide than in plain sight where no one’s expecting to see them?”

“I could think of, ooh, three, maybe four hundred places, just off the top of my head. Who is the guy? Is he six foot four, late forties?”

“No, but -” Her mind was racing again. “Look, I’m not saying it’s actually him, but people can completely alter their appearance, can’t they? He could easily have had some length taken out of each leg and his face changed.”

“Right, right. So, if you look at it that way, Osama bin Laden could be Oprah Winfrey, Britney Spears, or Eminem. Why have you fastened upon this guy?”

“It’s something about him. It’s his features – well, more his expression, in fact. He’s sort of languid.”

“Oh, why didn’t you say? Languid? Well, it’s definite then. I mean, bin Laden is number one on the FBI’s Most Languid List.”

Fielding solidly commits herself to comedy in Olivia Joules and the Overactive Imagination. If nothing else, who won’t love a heroine who renames herself after a unit of kinetic energy?