From the tips of her Jimmy Choo pumps to the top of her immaculately groomed auburn hair, Silicon Valley patent attorney Ashley Wilkes Stockingdale longs for real love, and she wants it now. After all, she is 31 --- much older than Arin, resident cutie-patootie of The Reasons, their church singles group --- and all of Ashley's alarm clocks --- biological, marital and spiritual --- are ticking loudly.
It doesn't help that Ashley (who wonders why her mother didn't name her after Rhett or Scarlett instead) has an unchurched family, a "Smug Married" best friend, and a boss named Purvi who is seemingly impervious to anything that doesn't resemble work --- she even has Ashley run out to take her nine-year-old son to school rather than leave her desk. (When Ashley tells him that his mom said how much she missed him, he replies: "My mom didn't say that. . .She's working on new patents which are critical to the success of Selectech. It's imperative that she be allowed to pursue her work. Family would, of course, become secondary at this time when her presence at the company is so vital.")
Ashley sits home too many weekends and is thoroughly tired of the second-tier activities her singles group plans (from chain-restaurant lunches to geek-movie viewings). Billerbeck has a keen, fresh perspective on the singleton sturm-und-drang that fuels the myriad Chick Lit titles out now in Helen Fielding's wake; like Bridget Jones, Ashley Stockingdale wants more from her life. Like Bridget, Ashley wonders how best to get it, and tries on everything from bad lingerie to Ann Taylor outfits in her search to pin "it" down. Like Bridget, Ashley tries to please everyone around her: best friend Brea, anxious mother, overworked boss, even singles group members, in her belief that placating others will make her life easier.
Unlike Bridget, of course, Ashley openly knows the Lord and has given her life to Him already. Seasoned readers of Christian literature will know from the get-go where Ashley needs to go: straight to Jesus Christ. What sustains Billerbeck's novel is the fact that each Christian needs to take his/her own path to salvation. She is a savvy enough writer to realize that what fundamentally works for John Bunyan and THE PILGRIM'S PROGRESS will work for her in the realm of Chick Lit.
However, Ashley and Company are not allegorical characters a la Bunyan, and sometimes their characters could use a little more old-fashioned development in order to be seen as full, modern human beings, and not simply caricatures of early millennium born-agains. Brea and John are worse than Smug Marrieds; they're dud marrieds. Ashley and Brea's conversation after the latter's miscarriage made me wonder if Billerbeck had ever spoken to a woman who has experienced pregnancy loss. Telling woman that "It's just a fluke" or anything along the lines of "You'll have more babies" is just not done.
Despite this caviling, WHAT A GIRL WANTS for the most part sparkles with reality and humanity. No one tells Ashley to stop working, nor do they tell her to stop believing. In others words, she's a young woman of today --- and readers can look forward to following her adventures in the second Ashley Stockingdale novel, SHE'S OUT OF CONTROL, this August.
Reviewed by Bethanne Kelly Patrick on March 7, 2004