Steve Martin, comedy actor, pulls a surprise out of the bag with his touching novella, Shopgirl. The name ‘Steve Martin’ conjures up images of slapstick moments, hilarious gurning and perfect comedy timing; not penetrating insights into the soul and delicate melancholy which this story delivers in abundance. Not knowing anything of Steve Martin the person and only judging him on his movies, it was an unexpected pleasure to read this book.
This contemporary tale follows Mirabelle, a lowly shop assistant working in the almost forgotten glove department of a major department store in Los Angeles. Mirabelle is not a traditional heroine, she has a very quiet life, no real friends, two cats (only one of which will socialise with her) and she struggles to keep depression at bay. She has an interest in art and draws dark etchings from time to time, and even manages to sell a few to local galleries. The highlight of her week is when there is an opening at a gallery and she can spend a few hours outside of her normal life, being the kind of person that she wants to be. Mirabelle’s life is uneventful, unexciting and unchanging, that is, until Mr Ray Porter makes her the object of his desire.
Martin submerges the reader deep into Mirabelle’s world; we hear the narration not only of our heroine’s life, but also from the perspective of other key players; which gives a well rounded understanding of each character’s motivations and failings.
I found the perception of beauty to be a long running theme throughout Shopgirl. Being set in Los Angeles, Martin often compares the mystery and allure of a natural beauty (Mirabelle) against the seduction of cosmetically enhanced women, with the latter often shown to have the weaker attraction of the two. Mirabelle encompasses the appeal of subtlety; she has a number of admirers for whom a well put together outfit or an unnoticed glimpse of supposed to be hidden flesh will peak their desire and maintain their interest. This unassuming attraction is in direct opposition to Lisa, a sexual predator and rival Shopgirl at the department store. Lisa has an enhanced appearance and preens her assets into the most desirable manifestation she can conjure, in order to snare the attraction of everyman in the room. She uses her beauty and sexual prowess as an instrumental tool in becoming the epitome of lust which, to her, increases her personal worth and substantiates her existence. In a world where perfection is revered, are we correct to idolise the enhanced?
Steve Martin provides an accurate commentary on personality traits, exploring insecurities and desires. The over-riding feeling that I got from this book was not to let depression be a barrier to your hopes and dreams. I found Shopgirl to be a surprising and insightful read, and one which I would pick up again if I need a little inspiration. It seems there is more to this zany comedian than meets the eye!