” To Mirabelle, the idea of being an object of obsession is alluring and represents a powerful love. She fails to understand, however, that men become obsessive over beautiful women because they want no one else to have them, but they fall in love with women like Mirabelle because they want a certain, specific part of them. ” (26)
Comedian and actor Steve Martin’s debut novella is both elegant and desolately sad. The shopgirl of the title is Mirabelle, a 28-year-old artist, Virginia transplant in Los Angeles, who works behind the glove counter at Neiman Marcus, “selling things that nobody buys anymore.” (1) She is not a slacker, just bored and wants someone to talk to, since the counter, located just next to the couture department, is just for show. All the Neiman girls deem her a loner and ostracize her. Other than readings and volunteer work that occupy a good portion of her past-time, weekends can be dreadful for someone of her fragility, because a slipup in planning could mean staring at the TV all day.
What would any man do with a soggy girl who can’t assert herself, who has a weak voice, who dresses like a schoolgirl, and whose main personality component is helplessness? (58)
Despite her helplessness and frustrations in life, Mirabelle is rather likable. It is no wonder the other girls would have nothing to do with her: Mirabelle is neither opportunistic nor calculating. She has a modest and non-monetary view on love, love that is untainted by sex. She is not in the league of women who attract men on the strength of their sexual appeal. Just when she is listlessly courted by Jeremy, whose job involves stenciling logos onto amplifiers, comes a secret admirer Ray Porter, a 50-something millionaire who spends most of his time in Seattle. He spots her at the glove counter, sends her a present, and asks her out to dinner.
She is falling in love, and she fully expects her love to be returned once Mr. Porter comes to his senses. But right now, he is using the hours with her as a portal to his own need for propinquity. (77)
As Mirabelle and Ray flinchingly embarks on this relationship, which is obviously doomed from the beginning because their agendas are wildly at odds. Their misunderstanding is both comic and heartbreaking, giving Shopgirl a touch of an allegory. Mirabelle wants—and needs—to gall in love; Ray is dating around, almost too casually, to find out about women at the expense of hurting a few along the way. The “Conversation” that they have best demonstrates their conflicting goals in relationship. That what Ray says and what Mirabelle hears are wholly opposite stalemate them.
Shopgirl is a jewel of a book, charming and tender, despite some slight flaws in editing. Mirabelle’s search for selfhood and love is touching. The book is ingenious in the way how Martin imposes this silent humor about how people re clueless of their absurdity. Absurdity is almost like pain that has to be endured in order for healing to take place. Shopgirl definitely has an edge to it, and a deep unassuageable loneliness.
130 pp. 1st Ed. Softcover. [Read/
Skim/ Toss] [Buy/ Borrow]