Helen Fielding's novel Bridget Jones's Diary had a meandering, rather shapeless shape (as diaries will). Both fans and critics of that 1998 smash hit will be surprised to find that the author's first novel, previously unpublished in the United States, is a lot more sophisticated in structure. And Cause Celeb is nearly as fun as Bridget Jones's Diary, which is saying a lot, especially since Fielding's debut is about African famine. The narrator, Rosie Richardson, runs a relief camp in the invented country of Nambula. Henry, the most flippant member of her staff, wears a T-shirt that tersely lists the various motivations for relief workers to come to Africa: "(a) Missionary? (b) Mercenary? (c) Misfit? (d) Broken heart?" As Rosie herself admits, she is "a c/d hybrid and soft in the head to boot."
Flashbacks reveal that in London, Rosie had fallen in love with an erratic, emotionally abusive (but adorable!) newscaster. As she trailed about town in Oliver's wake, she came to know his in-crowd of movie stars, directors, and musicians. Her split with this media magnet is what initially sent her to Africa. Four years into Rosie's exile, however, a plague of locusts descends on the crops of a neighboring country, and refugees begin to flood her camp. She decides there's only one thing to do: go back home and round up her old celeb pals for a benefit TV special.
It should come as no shock that the London sequences are great fun, as is the climactic collision between movie stars and refugees. But the real treat is Fielding's handling of the camp sequences. Rosie and her staff struggle with their petty emotions as they confront the incredible suffering in front of them. Henry watches in disbelief as some starving refugees move their tent to a better location: "Never mind the old malnutrition--you go for the view." A newswoman visits the camp, and, fraught with emotion after first seeing the starving children, she caresses Rosie, whose response is this: "I hope the famine hadn't turned her into a lesbian." Fielding has found a voice that is both compassionate and irreverent, a rare and wonderful combination. --Claire Dederer [via]