When Bridget Jones and Carrie Bradshaw stepped onto the cultural scene at the dawn of the millennium, the chick-lit heroine became one of the most powerful icons around. Thanks to these two, the marriageable female of a certain class—always a popular subject for writers and artists—has acquired a career, a shopping fixation, and an astounding ability to get herself into embarrassing situations. She likes to label the men in her life: “the emotional fuckwit” in Bridget’s case, or “the fuck-buddy” in Carrie’s. Which brings us to the most important thing our modern-day heroine enjoys: fucking, with all its delights and complications.
With the genre thus defined, I opened the pages of “Chloe Does Yale”—whose protagonist aspires to be the Ivy League equivalent of those older ladies—hoping for something at least mildly salacious. “Chloe” is the fictional debut of Natalie Krinsky, the former sex columnist of New Haven, and it chronicles the life of a female undergrad at her alma mater, who not surprisingly writes a sex column.
As if the title wasn’t suggestive enough, the book’s hot pink cover features a female silhouette, naked save a conveniently-placed ivy leaf. (How clever!) But alas, the novel features absolutely zero (count it, zero) actual full-on sexual encounters. In fact, a more appropriate title might have been “Chloe Gives Yale a Handjob—And Then Obsesses About it for 250 Pages.”
One hardly needs graphic sex to be entertained—Jane Austen remains wildly popular, after all. A good writer’s illuminating prose and tense plot set-ups would be more than adequate substitutes for detailed bedroom scenes. But Krinsky’s vapid characters are so irritating that halfway through, the reader might begin praying for them to start randomly coupling. The most provocative parts of “Chloe” are its slightly altered chapter-ending reprints of Krinsky’s actual “Sex and the (Elm) City” columns (now bylined by her alter ego), all of which I and most of my acquaintances have already read online.
“Chloe” tries to straddle the line between witty philosophical inquiry on the life of an Ivy co-ed and a scandalous tell-all, but ends up doing an awkward split. It doesn’t stimulate our minds—or anything else.
With each revelation about the excesses of her Yalie-from-a-New-York-City-Prep-School lifestyle, Chloe blushes momentarily and then wades back into her orgy of shopping and poring over e-mails from some outpost of the male gender. Unlike Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones, whose voice is so achingly human that we forgive and even love her self-absorbed behavior, we have no real reason to like Chloe. Bridget is a modern everywoman. But the location of Chloe’s story behind ivy-covered walls mandates that a different approach be taken—either one of unabashed elitism or serious social critique. We get neither.
Chloe tells us the calorie count of everything she eats ad nauseam and she dishes the dirt on her bikini-waxing ritual, trying to let us into her body anxiety: “I grab a bag of SoyChips, chips for us carbophobes who buy into the gospel that Vogue preaches,” she tells us conspiratorially. But her descriptions of the scanty (or nonexistent) outfits in which she trots off to parties, meant to make her audience revel in the bacchanalia of college life, don’t gel with her supposed embarrassment.
Similarly, she vacillates between pride at her savvy sex-columnist rep and the mortified confession that she’s really no more experienced than the rest of the world. In order for these contrasts to work, the narrator has to be more than somewhat self-aware. Because Chloe neither fully embraces her own shallowness nor seeks to delve into its roots, the only conclusion we can draw is that her insecurity is a petulant display—more act than reality.
Chloe’s most wrenching moments don’t carry real pathos: she describes getting backstabbed by the vixen-like Veronica who has snagged Maxwell, he of the infamous Chloe-bestowed handjob. She lavishes us with the details of her angry conversation with her parents after they find out she’s writing a sex column. She even begins to doubt herself for writing said column, and has to be counseled out of crisis by her many girlfriends.
When she falls asleep at the library she worries that she will be caught: “I will promptly be expelled and all notions of my intelligence thrown out the window. I will have to move to Key West and mop floors while living in a trailer with a guy named Bubba.” Perhaps this moment is supposed to be an ironic comment on the meaningless life of the over-privileged Ivy Leaguer. But it shouldn’t be a perhaps. This girl goes to Yale, she goes shopping for fun, and she writes a sex column without holding down a real job—she has to give us more reason to actually pity her than falling asleep in the library.
As the story unfolded I grew more apt to sympathize with the bitchy man-stealer Veronica than with Chloe—at least Veronica embraces herself. While Veronica gushes over the wonders of a vibrator, Chloe’s attempts at self-pleasure are stalled by the entrance of her roommate, hand-in-hand with her 10-year-old mentee. The moment is a metaphor for the entire book—every moment of self-revelation is stopped short by a cheap gag.
The many issues whose surfaces Chloe scratches could be rendered poignant if not tragic, but Krinsky’s approach lacks enough perspective. Disordered eating, romantic failures, sexual insecurity, the high pressure and elitism of an Ivy environment—all these problems are real. The lines outside every Ivy League school’s counseling offices are proof enough of that. And the paradigm of the young female who wants to be sexually liberated while simultaneously desperate to please the males around her is a real one—there’s a reason this genre is all the rage. But Krinsky’s characters never quite convince us to take them seriously. And they’re not funny and cruel enough to be the stuff of pure satire.
“Chloe” is not irredeemable, particularly for readers from the world being described. My reading of “Chloe” elicited many loud “I’ve totally been there” chuckles, particularly when Krinsky gives us students slipping in the mud at the Harvard-Yale tailgate, the hopeless tangle of crushes that enmesh a group of friends, or the occasional high intellectual in-joke: “Les autres, are, after all, hell—unless they are fucking you on your desk,” she says, describing the relationship between a philosophy major undergrad and her Sartre-loving TA. These are moments of sharp observation, even wit. But on the whole the book ends up being as flavorless as the vodka-and-soda Chloe so frequently ingests.
—Staff writer Sarah M. Seltzer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.