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Review by Julian Budden

Shopgirl, Mirabelle, spends her working day leaning against the counter in the glove department of Neimans, Los Angeles and, that’s about as exciting as it gets.

The story meanders from start to finish as if some of the medication that frees Mirabelle from the immobilising depression that otherwise surrounds her, has seeped into the pages and begun to tranquillise the plot. Which is a pity really, because Steve Martin is a good writer.

There is a grace in his descriptive style that enchants and delights. Sentences flow into each other like the perfume counter fragrances Mirabelle wafts through on her way home. Unfortunately this is not enough to mask the odour of cheap characterisation.

Ray Porter, Mirabelle’s sugar daddy, is as lightweight as the page he is written on. While the other male lead, Jeremy, undergoes a geek to god transformation that is usually only found in comic books, and is just as believable.

Then there is Lisa, Mirabelle’s friend. Perfect in ways Mirabelle is not, she’s a cardboard cut-out, displaying just the right amount of bitch for us to cheer when she sleeps with the wrong man. Just one of many examples of Martin’s prurience that, if taken out, would see the page count fall from 130 to double figures.

Throughout the book, miserable, sorry, Mirabelle, somehow manages to drag herself about with very little motivation to do anything. Even Ray Porter expresses his surprise when Mirabelle moves to San Francisco as “she had always seemed so frozen”, a fitting epitaph.

Martin even gives her enough talent to be a competent artist, a talent she uses to produce a few small drawings a year. A detail included to highlight her lack of progress in life, as Mirabelle is no more than a puppy in human form. A Christmas gift that will be barking up the RSPCA’s tree by New Year. Even Martin shows his despair with her lack of ambition when he describes it as “about one tenth of one percent, of what would be called normal”.

Anything of any significance that happens to Mirabelle, happens to Mirabelle because of Ray. She leaves L.A, with his help, gets a job in a gallery, with his help, goes to see her parents with his…..

Meanwhile, off on tour with a rock band, one night stand Jeremy is undergoing his metamorphosis. You know he will meet Mirabelle again and when he does the outcome is obvious and predicable. As are many of the bit players who wander in, say their lines, and wander out again. You know who they are, why they exist and that not a single one will leave Mirabelle any less dull than she was when we first met her.

It is easy to dismiss Shopgirl as just a bit of fluff although it is a pleasant enough read and, to be charitable, could be described as heart-warming. We can delight in the prose and despair at the plot.

Mirabelle, inevitably, finds love with the new and self-improved Jeremy. Ray Porter is left thinking “if only”. The happy ever after has arrived and we are left with a feeling that the credits are about to roll while some smaltzy music plays, as it no doubt does. The film of the book arrives here in January.

Shopgirl is no more than a set piece for stereotypes. A chick lit / flick that should be lit, with a match, and flicked into the nearest fireplace. Heart-warming can then be replaced with hearth warming and you can settle down and read a proper book. By the way, guess who plays Ray Porter in the movie.