'Shopgirl,' published in 2000, is the first of Steve Martin's two published novellas, the other one being 'The Pleasure of My Company' in 2003. This his first attempt at writing in such a form, having already starred in and written a number of movies and several plays - the most notable of which, 'Picasso at the Lapin Agile,' is currently being adapted for film by Martin and Fred Schepisi. Two collections of humorous essays, 'Cruel Shoes' and 'Pure Drivel' were also published prior to 'Shopgirl.' Shopgirl has also been adapted for film, Martin has taken the role of director for the adaptation, it should be released in 2005.

The book can be classified in a number of ways, the most obvious one being a romance. Mirabelle, the shopgirl of the title, is a young woman who works at Neiman Marcus in the glove department "selling things that nobody buys anymore..." Mirabelle suffers from depression, and her character is a timid, unglamorous person with "something about her that is irresistible." Having read the book I am still uncertain as to exactly why the author of the blurb feels she is irresistable. She and Ray Porter, a self-made millionaire who is many years her senior, first meet in the glove department where she works. Their first, uneventful encounter spells the first step of a relationship where, as the blurb puts it, "they struggle to decipher the language of love." The results of this relationship is described to be "both comic and heartbreaking."

If one considered this only in the context of being Martin's first attempt at a novella, one could say that he had done a reasonable job. However, given his previous accomplishments, I feel it would not have been unreasonable to expect more from him. The storyline is hardly groundbreaking, and the language used throughout the book is tedious and colorless. The descriptions of rather mundane aspects of the character's lives are lengthy and uninteresting, and the dialog is practically non-existent - I expected more in that regard from such an accomplished comedian, and the use of passive voice throughout the entire novel certainly does nothing to help. To try and illustrate my point, a small excerpt chosen at random:

At eight minutes after seven, she hits the Bentley Gallery on Robertson where she is to meet Loki and Del Rey. The joint is not jumping but at least it has enough people in it so everyone is forced to raise his voice, giving the impression of an event. Mirabelle wears her tight maroon knee-length skirt over low heels and a smart white sweater that sets off her blunt-cut nut brown hair. Loki and Del Rey aren't there yet, and Mirabelle has the annoying thought that they might not show. - Steve Martin, 'Shopgirl,' 2000

Perhaps my expectations for this piece were a little too high, but I find the novel to be written in a fashion that leaves much to be desired, and it has already been stated that the story itself is hardly original. However, being only 130 pages long, it is hardly a lengthy read and anyone interested in Martin's work should take it up. I would not, however, recommend it for any other reason.

Official Information:

Title..............Shopgirl: a novella
Author...........Steve Martin
Publisher.......Hyperion, New York, 2000

Official Classification

  1. "Beverly Hills (Calif.)- Fiction."
  2. "Clerks (Retail trade)- Fiction."
  3. "Departmental stores- Fiction."
  4. "Medication abuse- Fiction."
  5. "Young women- Fiction."

Shopgirl is a novella written by Steve Martin. It is around 120 pages, which makes it either a longer novella or a shorter novel. It was published in 2000, and could be considered "literary fiction", that is, it is not of a particular genre, but is a realistic tale in subject matter and style.

The book is a hesitant love story, between the titular shopgirl, her slacker admirer, and a wealthy older business man. As mentioned in the above review, the story is minimalist in both its topic and its presentation. There is a young woman of the 1990s, with a fairly typical background and attitude, who is having fairly typical romantic problems. Although one of her admirers is a wealthy older man, it is a fairly believable situation.

That being said, the fact that this is an understated work of modern fiction is more remarkable given who its author is. When I read a book by a celebrity, one of my first questions is "Would this book be published if the author was not a celebrity". In the case of Shopgirl, the answer is a very strong "yes". Even more strongly, Steve Martin at no point in the book beats the reader over the head with the fact that they are reading a book by Steve Martin. While the lack of humorous prose and subject matter, or absurdist interjections, is obvious, Steve Martin also uses his voice in this book. In fact, he has done what every good author should do: use a distinctive voice, while not beating the reader over the head with it.

This being said, it leads into what I think might be the most important point of the book, and one where Martin's absurdism shows through the serious style of the book. The book is a love story, but one without the usual development, climax or denouement of a love story. The protagonist finds herself in a relationship with an older man, who is more sophisticated than her but perhaps no wiser. In a conventional love story, there would be two ways to play this: either he is Prince Charming, who is going to deliver her from all hardship, or he is a lecherous, manipulative older man. Instead, he is neither. He genuinely loves her, but that love doesn't have the conclusion that either the characters or the audience has come to expect. The book is then, with no pyrotechnics, an absurd love story, a story about love that leaves the reader unsure of what has happened-- which is both absurd and very natural.

There is also other strands to the story, surprisingly many in such a short work. There are many other comments that could be made about the political and social background of the work, but that would perhaps involve too many digressions.

In any case, "Shopgirl" is a serious, thoughtful work of fiction by a man who chose not to coast on his fame.

Shop"girl` (?), n.

A girl employed in a shop.


© Webster 1913.

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