Thursday, January 8, 2009

Look, a beauty

After we watched the movie Shopgirl a couple of years ago, my mom remarked that I look like Claire Danes, who stars as "Mirabelle Buttersfield." And maybe there's something to that: though I doubt I'd be mistaken for Danes' twin, my hairstyle resembles her Shopgirl 'do, we both have strong facial features, and I love Mirabelle's vintage-y fashion sense. But also, it's a question of personality. Introverted, sensitive Mirabelle--with her artistic yearnings and her Penguin Classics and her way of quietly standing apart from the crowd--really is somebody that I can relate to.

Because of this, the film Shopgirl stuck with me longer than I initially thought it would, and so when I saw Steve Martin's original novella on sale last week, I decided to pick it up. For, although one of the main virtues of literature/cinema/drama is that it allows you access into the minds of people who differ greatly from you, I believe it is equally important to make time for art that illuminates your own psyche, to find characters that remind you of you.

Martin writes Shopgirl from an omniscient perspective, dissecting and explaining the personalities of his four main characters. So it's not Mirabelle's voice that I relate to, but Martin's precise description of how a girl like her (a girl like me?) behaves. For instance, in one sense, Mirabelle seems mature for her age. She's thoughtful, cultured, and kind of an "old soul." But Martin points out that despite this, her emotional intelligence lags behind her physical age: she is naive, self-deluding, awkward, uncertain, fragile. I often feel this same tension (am I overly-mature or overly-immature?) within me.

I wondered how I could relate so well to the shy, unassuming Mirabelle, when I also find myself identifying with characters like the spiky, competitive Frederica Potter. Then I realized that despite their different temperaments, both girls are loners. As is another of my treasured literary heroines, Jane Eyre. Female loners aren't as common in literature as you might expect. I think it's because people assume that women are more social and gregarious than men. A friendless man can be a Byronic hero, but a friendless woman is a freak.

So it almost feels weird--like an admission of weakness--to say that stories about loners are what speak to me. (Shopgirl, The Virgin in the Garden, Jane Eyre--seems I have a soft spot for books about smart loner girls who fall in love with older, emotionally distant men.) But then, since we loners are the people who most need sustenance and reassurance from the art we consume, we shouldn't feel ashamed of it. Instead, let's be glad that someone out there understands us...

One other Shopgirl observation: Mirabelle has a foil/rival in the form of Lisa, a cosmetics saleswoman who is in her early 30s but behaves like a high-school "mean girl." Now, I know that back in the day, Steve Martin used to date Bernadette Peters--and his description of Lisa's appearance is suspiciously similar to Peters' unique beauty. Both are shapely and buxom, with "skin that has never seen the sun" and "pale red ringlets." Coincidence, or Martin's oblique way of insulting his ex? I really hope it's not intentional, since I have always loved Bernadette Peters and don't want to have to think ill of her!

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