One of the reasons I started this challenge was to branch out in my reading, since my booklist over the three years at university – which is also fairly representative of my recreational reading up to this point – looks something like this:
As you can see, less than 10% of books I have read in my life have actually been written during my life. If it’s not classical, canonical or critical, it’s a safe assumption that I have not had the chance to read it yet. Though I utterly adored my degree and feel privileged to have read so many great literary works, I was also desperate to experience something topical! ‘Maybe one day I’ll finally be able to read a current bestseller,’ I thought, ‘or catch up with Richard and Judy’s Book Club, or even buy a book I’ve never heard of, on a whim, simply because I like the look of it.’
Enter Money Can’t Buy Me Love by Julie Reilly, my choice for Lancashire. I am thrilled (yet suitably apologetic) to say that I have never heard of it and chose it for the simple reason that, as I flicked through its pages, I got ridiculously excited at seeing the all-too-recognisable references to “Marks and Spencer” (49), “Facebook and Twitter” (85), “JK Rowling” (120) and “repeats of Red Dwarf on Dave” (125). As an interesting aside, it is yet another modern novel in this challenge that mentions 9/11: protagonist Linzi “visited Ground Zero and took the walking tour of the perimeter of the site, remembering the moment in 2001 when she had first heard that an aeroplane had crashed into the side of the World Trade Centre.” (72)
The book begins, though, in Blackpool, where clinically obese Linzi lives with loving boyfriend Adam. Throughout the course of the novel, she wins £13 million in the National Lottery; becomes selfish and ungenerous whilst obsessing over a new dangerous weight-loss regime that halves her body weight in little over a year; loses everything and everyone she loves in a quest for celebrity status; moves into a huge mansion in Cheshire “where the footballers live” (126); tries to kill herself when she realises she can’t win Adam back; moves away to Devon to get away from her problems and the press; finds true love and a real home in the countryside; and gradually redeems herself.
As that brief summary might suggest, Linzi lives a life that is all over the place, with no sense of home, comfort or belonging. Despite being dubbed by the newspapers as the “notorious vanishing Lottery winner from Blackpool” (362), the town inspires no special attachment in Linzi, who “only moved to Blackpool because [Adam] got a job here” (137). Her parents’ house is no safe haven either, since her mother criticises her weight at all opportunities. In fact, after her gigantic win, Linzi spends most of her time checking in and out of “drab and soulless” (375) hotels, unsettled in more ways than one. Most importantly, she cannot even find rest inside her own “container” (101), her body, because of the self-loathing her weight incites.
Reilly compares Linzi’s struggle to redefine the lines of her body with her failure to maintain the lines round her property or create a sense of belonging for herself; after finally settling (it seems) in Cheshire, members of the press repeatedly encroach onto her driveway and into her personal space, making the mansion feel like little more than an “expensive prison” (252) which she must “climb over the wall” (264) to access. Her own home becomes “out of bounds” (123) and a place of discomfort; she moves around the rooms “awkwardly” (208), intimidated as she is by the “ample formal reception rooms” (143), the “tufts of pink stuff” (205) in her own garden that she cannot identify and its “spinning steps” (236) that bring Mount Kilimanjaro to mind.
Linzi works tirelessly towards her own literal disappearance, to satisfy her self-loathing. Not only does she want to get thinner and thinner, but she makes herself invisible to the press by wearing disguises, staying away from her own windows or using discreet entrances and exits. She chooses to decorate her bedroom with carpet “so thick you could lose your toes in it” (163) to silence her own footsteps. On top of that, and aside from the suicide attempt (which would, most definitely, have removed her from her own story), Linzi’s body visibly shrinks – through the use of diet pills, anorexic eating patterns, brutal exercise plans and, in the final stages, plastic surgery – to a size eight; she all but vanishes before readers’ eyes. Through this theme, Reilly also criticises many aspects of society (including science and technology) for aiding this superficial obsession with the “magazine body” (12), through the development of
a) “this number called BMI which […] was actually a measure of just how grotesquely obese you were, as if the number on the scales wasn’t enough” (23) and
b) “Microsoft Excel”, which allows Linzi to live out her addiction by “set[ting] up a spreadsheet of her weight loss with a weekly target and a chart” (24).
This self-elimination is directly contradicted at the end of the novel, when Linzi moves to Devon and “feels like [she’s] finally come home” (274). In the “psychologically more uplifting” (323) environment of the countryside, she throws herself into village life at all possible opportunities. Tellingly, one of the first things she appreciates about the houses (in contrast with her Cheshire mansion) are “the boundary walls between the properties”, which are not only clearly defined, but attractive and protected too, “constructed of local stones” (272). She can finally be at peace with her “container” (101) – in both her body and her property.
Reilly’s novel had some interesting characters and themes but the plot was not my cup of tea. At times, especially as Linzi’s life was spiralling steadily downhill in Cheshire, the narrative dragged a lot. There were several points at which I thought the novel was going to end, but then yet another tenuous twist occurred and Linzi’s obsession was allowed to sputter on. The intricate detail of Linzi’s weight-loss regime, while commendable in some respects, made the novel feel more like a how-to book for masochists. Perhaps this is because, as I learnt at the end, “like Linzi, [Julie Reilly] lost a great deal of weight, took up running and ran the 2011 Virgin London Marathon”. Overall, it was a new experience to read a book that was so relevant to modern life but I can’t justify giving Money Can’t Buy Me Love any more than 1/5 stars.
I’ll be reviewing Val Wood’s The Innkeeper’s Daughter soon, so pick up a copy or, if you’re modern, download one and argue the toss with me next week!