LONDON - Readers, there is good news and bad news. Bridget Jones is back. But — brace yourselves — Mark Darcy is dead.
Fans have been shaken by the revelation, leaked ahead of publication of "Bridget Jones: Mad About The Boy," the third book in Helen Fielding's series about the diary-writing singleton. He may be fictional, but the demise of Bridget's handsome lawyer lover — played on the big screen by a smouldering Colin Firth — was headline news.
"I turned on the news and there was the Syrian crisis, and then 'Mark Darcy is dead,'" Fielding said, amazed.
"It's quite extraordinary for a fictional character to be treated as if they're alive. I sort of think, hats off to Colin, because really he inhabited that character."
The reaction is a testament to the hold of Fielding's characters on the popular imagination. In ditsy, indomitable Bridget, she created an archetype. (In Darcy she borrowed one, from the brooding Mr. Darcy of Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice").
Bridget, created for a series of 1990s newspaper columns, was a 30-something Londoner looking for love and career fulfilment while enduring the condescension of "smug marrieds" and confessing her many insecurities in her diaries: "Alcohol units 7, cigarettes 22, calories 2,145. Minutes spent inspecting face for wrinkles 230."
In "Mad About the Boy" she is still counting calories and booze, though cigarettes have been replaced by nicotine gum. Bridget is now a 51-year-old widow with two young children, convinced she will never find romance again.
Fielding said she had no choice but to kill Darcy so Bridget's story could move on.
"The book I wanted to write was not about domesticity, married life. It was about Bridget struggling with what life throws at you," Fielding said over lunch at the London gastropub where she likes to write in the daytime.
"It was Bridget being single with two children in the age of technology. And rediscovering her sexuality. She was a mother and she lost it amid the nappies and the busy-ness. I think lots of women go through that."
Breaking the news of Darcy's demise to Firth, who starred opposite Renee Zellweger in the film adaptations of "Bridget Jones's Diary" and "Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason," was surprisingly tough.
"I was really nervous, and I had to make sure that he had someone with him and they were sitting down. And then I said, 'Colin, I've got something really bad to tell you.'
"And then I suppose I just said 'You're dead,' which is an odd thing to say to anyone. And we were both upset, but at the same time we were laughing."
"Bridget Jones's Diary," published in 1996, turned Fielding from a freelance journalist into one of Britain's most successful writers. The novel and its 1999 sequel have sold 15 million copies.
For years, Fielding resisted writing another installment. She was drawn back into Bridget's world by a desire to write about the lives of middle-aged women, who often face stereotyping, just as the single Bridget did in the earlier books.
"There was the idea of 'tragic, barren spinster' because she was unmarried in her 30s," Fielding said. "It was real then. You were Miss bloody Havisham if you didn't have a boyfriend at 35. And I think the same is true of the middle-aged woman now.
"When I was in my 20s, I couldn't imagine that life would continue beyond 40, really," she added. "I couldn't imagine there would still be dating and going out and getting drunk with your friends and worrying about calls or texts that hadn't come, and what to wear."
In "Mad About the Boy," Bridget's romantic misadventures are overshadowed by loss and the fear of aging — but a strong comic vein remains.
"I think most of the things I write are a mixture of dark and light," Fielding said.
Life is "not all sailing along marvelously, nor is it 'Oh, we're in a well of despair.' People hit tough times, and then their friends get round them and cheer them up and then they keep buggering on."
As in the previous books, Bridget can lean on old friends Jude, Tom and Talitha, as well as disreputable former paramour Daniel Cleaver.
She navigates the treacherous world of online dating sites and Twitter, and acquires a 29-year-old boyfriend named Roxster.
The book also introduces Mr. Wallaker, a teacher at Bridget's son's school with whom she instantly clashes. But wait — is that a spark between them? (Hint: Fielding says her dream casting for a movie adaptation is Daniel Craig).
Bridget has always contained elements of Fielding, who is 55 and, like her character, lives in one of the nicer areas of North London with two young children. She is separated from their father, American comedy writer Kevin Curran.
There are glimpses of Bridget in the writer's quick wit and sense of the absurd — though Fielding exudes a considerably greater sense of control than her hapless heroine.
"Mad About the Boy" suffered its own Bridget Jones-style mishap when 40 pages from another book, a memoir by actor David Jason, were inserted into the British edition by mistake.
And some of the reviews have been less than glowing: not everyone hails mishap-prone, insecure Bridget as a 21st-century heroine. Guardian newspaper columnist Suzanne Moore wrote a piece headlined "Why I Hate Bridget Jones," condemning the character as "vapid, consumerist and self-obsessed" and the book as anti-feminist.
Fielding has heard that argument before.
She said that if women can't make fun of themselves, "we haven't got very far at being equal, have we?"
"And also, I think that is the way women communicate with each other, often, privately. They talk about their frailties, their mess-ups, their weaknesses, their vulnerabilities, and they are funny about it and they support each other.
"I was surprised with the first book, with the women who told me they identified with it — powerful, successful women, saying 'Oh yes, I have that problem with tights being all tangled up.' And it's not just women, either. (Prime Minister) David Cameron was in the papers not so long ago ... and he said that he'd get in a situation when he's got the kids in the back of the car and he gets a head of state on the phone: 'Will you shut up, I've got the Israeli prime minister on the phone!'
"Bridget Jones: Mad About the Boy" is published in the United States by Knopf on Tuesday.
Jill Lawless can be reached at http://Twitter.com/JillLawless
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