Shopgirl by Steve Martin
I adore Steve Martin’s writing – see my review of his tremendous memoir Born Standing Up here, and his 2010 novel An Object of Beauty at my old blog here. I finally got around to reading his first fictional publication Shopgirl, a few weeks ago, and yesterday I watched the film, so this post will touch on both, but book first…
Mirabelle comes from Vermont. A wannabe artist, she has ended up in L.A. working at Neiman’s on the glove counter. She takes anti-depressants and she’s lonely and feels like life is passing her by at home and at work:
When you work in the glove department at Neiman’s, you are selling things that nobody buys anymore. These gloves aren’t like the hard-working ones sold by L.L.Bean; these are so fine that a lady wearing them can still pick up a straight pin. The glove department is adjacent to the couture department and is really there for show. So a lot of Mirabelle’s day is spent leaning against the glass case with one leg cocked behind her and her arms splayed outward, resting on her palms against the countertop. (p1)
She meets a guy, Jeremy in the Launderette. He works for a company manufacturing amplifiers. They go on a few dates, have sex but are complete opposites in temperament.
Jeremy’s though process is so thin that he has the happy consequence of always ending up doing exactly what he wants to do at all times. He never complicates a desire by overthinking it, unlike MIrabelle, who spins a cocoon around an idea until it is immobile. … At this stage of their lives, in true and total fact, the only thing they have in common is a Laundromat. (p12/13)
One Friday a gentleman appears at her counter asking advice on buying a pair of dress gloves. She helps him through the purchase, and ‘her inner checklist gives him full marks in all categories.’ He is a successful businessman called Ray Porter – and Mirabelle will find the gift-wrapped gloves on her porch waiting for her a couple of days later.
He takes her out to dinner and they begin a tentative relationship (Mirabelle lets Jeremy go, encouraging him to achieve his dreams). Ray however, is divorced, no kids – and feels compelled to keep things straight from the start:
Understanding. For Ray Porter, that is good. She absolutely knows that this will never be long term. He goes on: “But I love seeing you and I want to keep seeing you.”
“I do too,” says Mirabelle. Mirabelle believes he has told her that he is bordering on falling in love with her, and Ray believes she understands that he isn’t going to be anyone’s boyfriend…. “So what I’m saying is that we should be allowed to keep out options open, if that’s okay with you.”
At this point, Ray believes he has told her than in spite of what could be about to happen tonight, they are still going to see other people. Mirabelle believes that after he cuts down on his travelling, they will see if they should get married or just go steady. (p79)
Martin’s style of writing is funny – but it’s wry, deadpan funny, often with a hint of wistful tragedy to come. Alain de Botton’s recent novel The Course of Love (which I reviewed here) shares this style, being warm and witty yet you’re always left wondering what might have been had the characters actually said more of what they’d been thinking – therein lies the comedy and drama of course.
I won’t explain Shopgirl further; will Mirabelle have a happy ending? Read it and see.
The novella of Shopgirl was published in 2000, and was followed by a film of the novel in 2005. The character of Ray Porter was clearly written by Martin for himself – and he adapted the story for the screen too. It follows the novel for the most part (except that Saks replaces Neiman’s as the store where Mirabelle works), and the ending is reworked to make for better closure of the film.
I loved the quote on the front of my DVD copy.
‘Relationships don’t always fit like a glove.’
All three of the main characters are outstanding in this film.
Claire Danes, as we know from Homeland etc. does ‘broken’ extremely well. She can be the perfect girl next door, but her flashing eyes and magnetic smile are just charming when she turns them on. Martin is not only good at being zany, as he’s grown older, he’s developed the art of stillness and Ray is just so perfectly restrained. There was one scene which made me cry – a few happy-sad tears crept down my cheeks – and Martin did a watery eyed wistful tragic clown type look. I just wanted to pummel Ray and say, ‘See what you’re losing!?’ Jason Schwartzman is gloriously goofy and then grows up rather wonderfully.
If you want a full on rom-com – this isn’t one. It’s very like the book. Thoughtful, serious, yet deadpan funny in its portrayal of relationships. I loved it too – and for once I think the film is the equal of the book (despite the change in the ending).
I loved both! (10/10)
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Source: Own book, own DVD.
Shopgirl by Steve Martin (paperback, 164 pages) – out of print but used copies available here. (Affiliate link).