Book Review: Shopgirl by Steve Martin

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Steve Martin is well known as a comedic actor but he is a jack of all trades, including music and writing. Shopgirl was his first novella, published in 2000, although Martin has been writing for most of his life, winning an Emmy when he was 23 as part of a comedy writing team.

The titular shopgirl is Mirabelle, although like most artists, she is a shopgirl only so she can pay the bills because the few drawings she has sold aren’t enough to support herself with. She mans the glove counter in Nieman’s and is rarely disturbed by customers. She meets Jeremy in a laundromat. He’s an artist, too. Sort of. He stencils logos on amplifiers for musicians. He hardly inspires her passion but most people think she’s weird so she agrees to go out with him. They have a few awkward encounters before Jeremy disappears.

Then one day Mirabelle comes home from work to find a box at her door. When she unwraps it, the box contains a pair of gloves she sold to a customer the week before along with an invitation to dinner. And when Ray Porter shows up in person at Nieman’s to repeat the offer, she agrees. Ray is twice her age and wealthy, divorced and completely clueless about women. Although he is attracted to her, he makes it perfectly clear that their relationship will be casual and he will continue seeing other women. At least, he thinks he makes it clear. Mirabelle thinks he is just afraid to let himself fall in love with her and will come around eventually.

Ray lives in Seattle but he and Mirabelle date whenever he is in Los Angeles. They spend Thanksgiving together and Ray pays off Mirabelle’s debts and buys her a more reliable car. She gives him a drawing of herself. He supports her when her depression medication stops working and she has to wean and start a new one.

The blurb positions the book as Mirabelle making a choice between Ray and Jeremy, who reappears later in the book having become successful, but it really isn’t like that. The two don’t actually overlap. Each relationship starts and finishes before the other begins. It’s actually more about all three characters trying to find themselves. Jeremy is the only one who manages to do it on his own while Mirabelle and Ray try – and fail – to do it together.

I was a little concerned about what the book implies about professional success being necessary before relationships can be successful, too. And I think it’s more of an aphrodisiac to be wanted rather than needed but Mirabelle needs these men as she negotiates her growth as an adult. This might be a man/woman thing. Maybe men enjoy being needed.

Martin’s style is unique. I’ve never read another book written in the same way. It’s prose heavy and dialogue light and narrated in the third person by someone who knows the characters better than the characters – or their friends or their families or their therapists – will ever know themselves, revealing depths the characters will come to understand only long after the book is over.

There is no plot in the traditional sense. Mirabelle works, dates, draws, goes to the doctor, to galleries, to her home in Vermont to visit her family. I suspect in anyone else’s hands, this story would fall flat. But Martin coaxes interest out of the things that we could easily recognise as dull in our own lives.

This isn’t the kind of book that will change anyone’s life but it’s a wonderful insight into the world of Los Angeles beyond the stereotypes. There are rich people and cosmetically altered people and famous people but they all exist on the edge of the story as evidence of their ridiculousness and in contrast to the main characters, even though they are anything but suburban or ordinary.

This also isn’t the kind of book, the kind of writing, that I could read a succession of. I think part of its magic is in the fact that it is a complete departure from the book before it and the book after it.

I’m not especially inspired to read Martin’s other work based on this book but neither am I completely against the idea. I think he’s a wonderful writer but I also think he likes to write about people and stories that diverge away from where my interests lie. Still, I can recognise this as an achievement.

3 stars

*First published on Goodreads 4 June 2016

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