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Into the corporate domain

Last updated: 19 March, 2011
Samhita Arni 18:11 IST

I used to think chick lit novels were 'beneath' me. My conversion happened six years ago, and the principal agent in this conversion was (surprisingly) my brother.

by the water cooler Parul Sharma Westland 2010, pp 261  250 We were squabbling over the TV remote and decided to toss. My brother won and elected to watch a movie that he had already seen once before, an unusual choice for a 16-year-old boy — The Princess Diaries, based on the books by Meg Cabot.

Over the next hour-and-a-half, I was forced to reconsider my views on chick lit. After the movie, I promptly bought the books by Meg Cabot, and after devouring the saga of Mia
Thermopolis, moved onto Candace Bushnell, Helen Fielding, Sophie Kinsella, Jennifer Crusie and a host of other chick-lit authors. I discovered that although chick lit isn’t considered a serious genre, to call such novels ‘light’ would be a mistake. The conflict between career and family and the price of success are themes often explored in such novels, reflecting the realities that many modern women face.

In By The Water Cooler, Parul Sharma presents familiar characters — the Tyrannical Boss (spawned from hell), the 'Wickham' (the handsome but deceitful romantic interest), and of course, the Best Friend. The adventures of Mini Shukla, Parul Sharma’s protagonist and a young brand management executive, as she struggles to keep her new job in J R Enterprises, while being sabotaged by her boss, yelled at by the insane CEO, beset by capricious models and magazine editors, make for a witty, entertaining page-turner.

Sharma’s descriptions of the characters and the way of life at a corporate workplace resonate with many of her readers. But, nonetheless, By The Water Cooler leaves one a little unsatisfied. The conflicts that Mini Shukla experiences are all external. She faces no internal conflicts that force her to question her job, profession, or encourage introspection.

The strength of chick lits are its characters and their arcs. The heroine in a chick lit novel may start off as a weak character — but through the challenges she faces, she discovers strength. The plot develops to present the protagonist with a difficult choice — this is true of all good stories, but in the case of chick lit, it’s a definitive, affirming choice.

For example, famously, Achilles in the Illiad is faced with a choice. He can avoid the war and live — a long and prosperous but obscure life. If he takes part in the war, he will die, but as a hero remembered for all time. What does he choose? The choice that makes him; that reaffirms who he is — he decides to fight.

Similarly, Mia Thermopolis in The Princess Diaries faces an equally definitive choice — she
must choose between the crushing responsibilities and public life of Genovia's Crown Princess, or the simple, care-free, private life of an American school girl. Likewise, Victory Ford, in Candace Bushnell's novel Lipstick Jungle, must choose to sell her company — her 'name' — for millions of dollars; or forego the money, and stay true to her identity and the company she has built over many years.

In By The Water Cooler, Sharma does not develop an internal conflict for her heroine, nor does she prod her to make a difficult choice that affirms her identity and her character.

The resolution that Sharma offers us only consolidates the heroine’s place in her despotic workplace. Yes, the bad guys get minus points, and Mini Shukla gains credit. But nothing more is gained. Moreover, Sharma creates such a negative portrait of the heroine's workplace and job that one can't help feeling that any resolution that involves Shukla remaining in this oppressive system, without changing the status quo, is neither a success nor a victory. As a result, By the Water Cooler is a fun but forgettable read.

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