May 14, 2004
By Martha Liebrum
Jane Heller polishes Chick Lit formula
If you are a reader of Chick Lit, you know what it is. It comes in books by Helen Fielding (Bridget Jones’s Diary) or Candace Bushnell (Sex and the City) or Plum Sykes (Bergdorf Blondes).
And now comes the less heralded but extremely successful Jane Heller, who is the Stephen King of Chick Lit and exults on her Web site JaneHeller.com, “Another spring, another new book!”
In case you are not so familiar with Chick Lit, we will go down the checklist for same:
- Heroine is 22-40ish, spunky and smart.
- She works in publishing.
- She is New York City stylish and either wears, or is very close to people who wear, $500 Jimmy Choo shoes.
- She is carried along by forces for both good and evil by her buoyant spirit and oddball group of friends and co-workers.
- The book jacket features women’s legs.
I did not make up these criteria, mind you, they were prepared by a correspondent for National Public Radio who in April discussed Chick Lit and the much tinier subspecies Lad Lit. Heller’s Best Enemies meets all the criteria for this currently very hot-selling form of fiction, and you should definitely add it to your carryall this summer when you head for the beach.
Do not think this will insult Heller. On her Web site she announces her joy at having one of her books included among 150 in a contest promotion called “Get Caught Reading at Sea,” which honors the “joys of reading by the pool.” Heller’s site says, “The six-month campaign will culminate in a seven-day cruise on the Carnival Elation, October 17-24, during which authors and readers will sail out of Galveston, Texas, to the Western Caribbean.” (This may confirm what was recently suggested by an anti-Chick Lit reviewer who said haughtily that actual Chick Lit sells best in America’s “flyover regions.”)
While NPR credits Fielding with being the godmother of Chick Lit, I must insist that Heller get her due. A former book publicist, Heller figured out the magic formula and has produced a novel a year since Cha Cha Cha in 1994. Best Enemies is her 11th, and she already has her 12th ready for next year.
Three of her previous books have been optioned for movies, and a fourth has a TV deal. Heller invites her fans to participate in cybercasting the upcoming movies. So … hmmmm … who would play the two leads in Best Enemies?
In this outing we have a spunky brunette book publicist named Amy Sherman who has lived in the shadow of her former best friend Tara Messer, a tall, gorgeous blonde. They were very tight until Amy found Tara in bed with her fiance, the feckless Stuart. The friendship is so over. Tara marries Stuart because he’s handsome and very rich.
Amy has moved on in her career, and though she’s jealous when she hears that Stuart and Tara live in “an enormous Tudor in Mamaroneck … on the water … with a guest house … and a pool and cabana,” she’s working on that. As her shrink reminds her: “Focus on you, Amy, on what you want out of life.”
Amy’s doing pretty well with that until she accidentally runs into Tara on a New York street (accidents are the things that move this book along). Amy can’t resist dressing up her current situation by telling Tara she has a fiance, which she doesn’t, of course. Tara asks who’s the lucky guy?
” `No one you know,’ ” I said, not bothering to mention that he was no one I knew, either.”
This is the sort of smart-alecky humor that appears on every page of Heller’s book.
Amy feels a little guilty about the lie, but not as guilty as she will come to feel after another amazing coincidence. She is called in for a very important assignment: handling publicity for a new lifestyle book by “the next Martha Stewart.” The book is about how to create a beautiful life with inner peace and appropriately expensive candles. And the author is the beautiful and happily rich Tara Messer.
Let the games begin: Amy has to arrange TV interviews for and listen to the philosophy of her old nemesis, who has been paid a mid-six-figure advance. Worse, Tara won’t rest until Amy brings her fiance to her house for dinner.
Naturally, the truth won’t do. So Amy rounds up a fake fiance. This one turns out to be a handsome (what else?) if grumpy Famous Writer for whom she pretends an interest in cars, sports and wine. She drags him to Tara’s, having first primed Tara and Stuart not to mention the engagement, which they agree to. And that’s important, because she hasn’t told the Famous Writer about the fake engagement, either.
Of course, outrageous activities ensue. Tara’s beautiful life turns out not to be quite as advertised. Stuart makes some disastrous business decisions, then disappears. Tara and Amy unite to drag him back so they can fake the beautiful life long enough for the book’s publicity campaign. And the pretend fiance falls for Amy.
OK, who should play them in the movie? Small handsome brunette — how about Janeane Garofalo? Tall gorgeous blonde. Uma Thurman? Oh, wait, they already made that movie, The Truth about Cats and Dogs. Oh, well, I’m sure the fans will come up with something.
Red Hot Summer Read
When PR whiz Amy Sherman runs into Tara Messer, the wench who ran off with her fiance, she puts a happy spin on her life and claims she’s getting married. Amy’s bogus story bites her in the ass when she’s hired to promote Tara’s book. Watching her wiggle out of her lie makes for a flat-out funny read.
Reviewed by Jocelyn Kelley
What do you do if you find your fiance and your best friend/maid of honor in a “compromising” position just days before your wedding? If you are Amy Sherman, the star of Jane Heller’s most recent novel BEST ENEMIES, you throw them both out of your life and vow never to look back. Unfortunately, no matter how hard you try to forget your past, life has a funny way of forcing it back into your present.
Best friends Amy Sherman and Tara Messer are now the worst of enemies after Amy catches her fiance, Stuart Lasher, in bed with Tara. While Amy had always been the thoughtful, hardworking plain Jane, Tara was the beautiful, confident, homecoming queen. Losing her fiance to the one woman whose shadow she had always lived in was devastating to Amy. She decided that focusing on her career in publishing and pushing the betrayal out of her mind would help her move on in life and in love.
However, years later, Amy, now a publicist for the large publishing house Lowery and Trammel, is unexpectedly reunited with Tara when she learns she has to publicize her new book, SIMPLY BEAUTIFUL. The theme of Tara’s book is her perfect life with her perfect husband Stuart. Things could not get any worse for Amy until she lies to Tara about having moved on from the heartbreak with Stuart straight into the arms of a loving man who has now become her fiance. Now, Amy not only has to willingly parade Tara around and turn SIMPLY BEAUTIFUL into a bestseller, but she also has to make a fiance appear magically before Tara’s perfectly beautiful, flawless face.
Amy tries to turn one of America’s most reclusive mystery authors into her stand-in fiance without him knowing of her complicated plan. The twists and turns that Amy must face in trying to keep up the facade are hilarious and unpredictable. Amy is one of the most likable, intelligent and honest characters in women’s fiction. The majority of the novel is from Amy’s point of view, but three quarters of the way through the book we are introduced to Tara’s thoughts and feelings and no longer see her as the villain. We begin to see that no matter how perfect a life looks from the outside, everyone has secrets that they try to keep hidden from others. Tara may be beautiful and live a “simply beautiful” life, but sadness and betrayal lurk beneath her perfect surface.
BEST ENEMIES explores the complex relationship between female friends. Heller allows us to see that there are always two sides of a story and when it comes to matters of the heart, no one is ever completely innocent. In rediscovering their discarded friendship, Tara and Amy learn that the dramas of life affect everyone equally, and it is all about how you handle what is thrown your way that defines your character and turns you into the person you are meant to be. Throw in an unexpected romance, a missing person and some members of the Russian mob, and you have a great novel by a great author. BEST ENEMIES is impossible to put down and is the best addition to your summer reading list.
January 15, 2004
What if your best friend turned into your worst enemy?
Is it legal to kill someone who has sex with your fiance right before your wedding? Is it a little bit legal? Amy Sherman would like to know. She walked in on Tara Messer, naked and straddling an equally naked Stuart (admittedly an unimpressive sight – hunkalicious he is not) just as Tara shouted, “Take me home!” Four years later, Amy’s still sulking, while Tara and Stuart decorate a Mamaroneck mansion with tchotchkes bright and beautiful when not rolling around in the millions he makes running the family chain of gourmet grocery stores. Moving right along, Amy, a publicist for Lowry & Trammel, a New York publishing company, is not exactly thrilled with her new assignment: drumming up interest in Tara’s book of self-help advice for miserable women everywhere. Simply Beautiful is a shoo-in for the bestseller lists, even if it’s mostly recycled stuff swiped from others – hey, just like the way Tara swiped Stuart, Amy muses. In a fit of pique, Amy makes up an imaginery fiance just so her life won’t seem utterly pathetic compared to that of her former friend. But then – yikes! – Tara, disgustingly gracious, invites her and the nonexistent fiance to dinner, so she’s going to need a real one. One quick look at the self-appointed office studs and Amy’s ready to look elsewhere. How about mystery author Tony Stiles? He’s tall, sexy, and breathing – he’ll do. Segue to Tara’s POV and deep, dark secret: Stuart is a prize jerk and compulsive womanizer who’s mixed up with the Russian mob in a caviar-importing scheme. She’s far from happy and her life is far from perfect, but she’s determined to do something good for Amy. Another trip down the aisle awaits them both, but the roles – and the rules – are about to be reversed.
Funny, clear-eyed look at female friendship from the prolific Heller.
December 3, 2003
Amy Sherman, a 30-year-old publicity director, has always played second fiddle to her best friend from high school, Tara Messer. The blond prom queen who always got what she wanted, Tara stole Amy’s fiance, but that was four years ago. Amy is finally getting over it, thanks in part to her expensive therapist. It isn’t until Amy runs into Tara on the street that things start to fall apart. When Tara inquires into Amy’s love life, Amy lies, telling her that she is getting married in six months. Unfortunately for Amy, Tara has just written a “lifestyle” book that Amy’s publishing house has acquired. Since they will be working closely together for the foreseeable future, Amy must come up with a pseudo-fiance to save face. In the end, neither Amy nor Tara is leading the life that she would have the other believe. Although the novel is told mostly from Amy’s perspective, Tara gets a few chapters, too. Heller’s latest takes an interesting look at what can happen when honesty takes a backseat to appearances and how true friendship can be born of animosity. Recommended.
December 1, 2003
Amy Sherman is pretty; Tara Messer is a beauty. Amy has a nice Manhattan apartment; Tara’s suburban Tudor castle boasts an actual turret. Amy was engaged to Stuart Lasher, who took maid of honor Tara to bed and then to the altar. Now Tara has chronicled her perfect lifestyle in a book called Simply Beautiful, about to be published by Lowry and Trammell where her editor plans to make her the next Martha Stewart, without the baggage, and where Amy is publicity director. Can you spell delicious conflict? Heller (Lucky Stars) goes for the laughs and gets them, but there’s more here than meets the funny bone. Just when the reader is ready to kill the perfidious Tara (perhaps by beating her to death with accessories and garnishes), Heller switches out of Amy’s point of view and into Tara’s. It turns out Tara’s a real person, too. And she’s in trouble. It seems she did Amy a favor by stealing Stuart, who grabs every passing ass and may bring down the family business with a fake caviar scheme. And it isn’t Tara who’s pregnant with Stuart’s baby. Meanwhile, in another switcheroo, Amy’s got a great romance budding with Tony Stiles, the gorgeous mystery author. Of course, they’re only pretending to pretend to be in love — Amy to save face (she told Tara she was engaged) and Tony to research relationships — and things are going swimmingly. Though the happy ending is a sure thing, getting there is fabulous fun. Heller makes a familiar story read as brand new, thanks to a rich humanity abetted by smart dialogue, zippy pacing and all-around craft.
Forecast: With three movie deals last year alone (for Name Dropping, The Secret Ingredient and Lucky Stars), bestseller Heller is big and looks only to get bigger.
It was my editor at St. Martin’s, Jennifer Enderlin, who said during one of our brainstorming sessions, “You’ve covered sisters in Sis Boom Bah and married couples in The Secret Ingredient and mothers and daughters in Lucky Stars. How about writing about best friends this time?” She went on to describe how she had always played the role of second fiddle to her more beautiful and popular best friend when they were growing up, and how that feeling of being “less than” really stays with you, no matter how much you achieve in your adult life. I started thinking about that – about how we revert back to the roles we played in our youth; how we can’t help wanting to show people how well we turned out when we go to our high school and college reunions; how the insecurities we carried around as kids seem to rear their heads when we’re confronted by people we perceive as “better.” And so I came up with Amy Sherman, a publicist in New York City, who is a success by anyone’s standards – until she’s forced to measure herself against her gorgeous former best friend, Tara Messer. She was betrayed by Tara once, and now all she can think about is payback. But when she falls in love with the very man she’s using as the key to her payback, she leaves herself vulnerable to Tara’s betrayal yet again. What Best Enemies is about, then, is overcoming the difficulties of the past, and trying to make peace with them. In the end, that’s what all my books are about: making peace with the past and accepting people as they are.
Read the First Chapter
Two weeks before I was to be married in front of a hundred and fifty guests on the lawn of a precious little country inn in Connecticut, I caught my fiance in bed with another woman. To add insult to injury, the woman was my best friend. To add further insult to injury, she was the one on top when I walked in on them midcoitus. She was crying out, “Take me home, Hondo!” even though my fiance’s name was the far less studly-sounding Stuart, and she was riding him as if he were a horse, even though he is hung like a very small dog.
They were both horrified when they discovered me standing in the doorway of the bedroom Stuart and I had shared — they must have assumed it would take longer for the dentist to tame the inflammation I’d developed in my lower left gum, a condition brought about by the stress of the wedding, according to Dr. Ronald Glick, D.D.S. Stuart tried to say something to me but could only stammer, being the gutless wonder that he is, and I tried to say something to him but could only lisp, thanks to Dr. Glick’s liberal use of novocaine. My best friend, on the other hand, though clearly upset (she was the one who burst out crying, while I was too catatonic to shed even a single tear), was able to speak for the two of them. She climbed off of Stuart, covered herself modestly with the bed-sheet (never mind that I had seen her naked in countless department store dressing rooms over the years), and went on and on about how much they both cared about me and respected me and thought I was special, but that, in the end, they couldn’t deny that they had fallen in love. “I swear we never meant to hurt you, Amy,” she added between sobs. “These things happen.”
Well, she was right, as it turns out; these things do happen. Statistics show that when a man strays, the person he most often strays with is the best friend of the person he strays from. I don’t know why this is, other than that men are lazy. Why should they go out of their way to hunt for someone to cheat with when their beloved’s gal pal is right there in plain sight? The more puzzling question is: Why does the gal pal go for it? Are women really so desperate to find a guy that they can’t just say no in sticky situations? Can’t summon up some good old-fashioned willpower? Can’t tell him, “Look, big boy, I’m lonely and I’m horny and, if you must know, I’m a little envious that my best friend has a man and I don’t, but I take the friendship seriously, so get lost? Is that really asking too much?
“Stuart was planning to talk to you tonight,” she continued as I leaned against the wall so I wouldn’t fall down. “He was going to tell you that he was having doubts, that he couldn’t marry you knowing he had feelings for me, that he had to call off the wedding. It wasn’t supposed to be like this. You weren’t supposed to walk in and find us together. Oh, please, please try to understand, Amy. I know you must be dying inside-how could you not be?-but hopefully, after some time and distance, you’ll come to accept the situation and forgive us.”
I looked at Stuart, who had forgotten to cover himself with the sheet and whose privates had shriveled to giblets. I hated him for his treachery; hated him because he was jilting me at the altar, give or take a few days; hated him because he was forcing me to rethink every minute we’d ever spent together. But in time, I did forgive him-well, not forgive him, exactly, but I did stop fantasizing about his death. I realized that he had done me a favor by dumping me; that I’d never really loved him, either.
It was my best friend I couldn’t forgive, she who became the object of my enmity. How could she have done it? How could this seemingly decent, although self-absorbed, human being have done this dirty rotten thing to me?
As I staggered out of the bedroom that day, my mind ran a little black- and-white montage of the highlights of our friendship, sort of a quickie golden oldies reel. There we were as ten-year-olds, comparing the haircuts our mothers made us get for summer camp. There we were as thirteen- year-olds, discussing braces and pimples and whether tongue-kissing a boy was great or gross. There we were as sixteen-year-olds, comforting each other over our mutual failure to pass our driving test the first time around. There we were as eighteen-year-olds, graduating from high school and promising to stay friends, even though our colleges were three thousand miles apart.
We did stay friends through our twenties, although not with the same intensity. As we moved into adulthood, we got jobs, made new friends, and discovered we didn’t have as much in common as we did when we were kids, but we continued to get together on a regular basis because, no matter what, we shared a history. You can’t just write off the person who taught you how to inhale cigarette smoke up your nose, after all.
And so, while there were other women I saw more often, it was she whom I’d considered my best friend, she whom I’d asked to be my maid of honor at my wedding, she whom I’d trusted above all others. It was she whose betrayal sent me careening into therapy, which I paid for by selling my diamond engagement ring.
For three years, I spent Tuesdays at noon on the cracked leather sofa of Marianne Ettlinger, a Manhattan psychologist who is not of the old school, where the shrink just sits there and nods, but of the new school, where the shrink tells you so much about her own problems that you’re tempted to remind her it’s your dime. Her chattiness aside, Marianne is wise and smart and extremely compassionate. She helped me conquer my demons. She helped me let go of my feelings of rage. She helped me understand that there had always lurked a pattern in my relationship with my best friend, a pattern of my giving and her taking, but that I couldn’t get on with my life unless I abandoned my obsession with exacting revenge. I pledged that I would do just that-stop obsessing about paying my best friend back-even after I’d heard from various high school classmates that she and Stuart had gotten married and moved into an enormous Tudor in Mamaroneck … on the water . . . with a guest house . . . and a pool and cabana. Talk about hard to stomach. Part of me still wanted her to suffer, not prosper, but Marianne and I worked on that. “Focus on you, Amy, on what you want out of life, not on how your life compares to hers,” she said during a break in her anecdote about her ongoing rivalry with her sister. “It doesn’t matter how she and Stuart are faring. What matters is how you’re faring and whether you feel centered.” Marianne was big on the notion of feeling centered. When I left her office after our final session, I did feel centered-but only temporarily.
What happened to throw me off center was this: On a prematurely warm Saturday afternoon in April, the very weekend after I’d ended my therapy, I ran into my best friend. I hadn’t seen her in nearly four years, not since the day she was straddling Stuart, and I was undone, absolutely caught off guard. For one thing, Marianne and I hadn’t rehearsed what I would do or say if such an occasion arose. For another, my hair was filthy, since I’d just come from a strenuous workout at the gym, I wasn’t wearing makeup, and I was in midbite of the bagel and cream cheese I’d picked up at Starbucks, the cream cheese, no doubt, smeared across my front teeth. And so when my best friend approached me, looking incredible (perfect clothes, perfect jewelry, perfect everything), there was good news and bad news about my behavior. The good news was that, thanks to my therapy, I did not feel the urge to slap her across the face or hit her over the head with my backpack or stomp on her five-hundred-dollar Jimmy Choo shoes, nor was I moved to give her the silent treatment or hurl obscenities at her. The bad news was that, although physical and verbal abuse were out of the question, I felt compelled to do something to her. I’m embarrassed about what I did, sure, but it felt right at the time. Well, not “right,” of course, but satisfying, like an itch that got scratched.
“Amy, how are you?” my best friend said in that way people say it when what they mean is: How do you manage to get up in the morning, you poor, pitiful person?
“I’m great,” I said, gulping down the mouthful of bagel and standing up straight. I wasn’t great, but, up to that point, I’d been pretty good. I had a career and people to hang out with and enough money to take vacations in the Caribbean every now and then. There was only one thing missing: I wasn’t in love with anybody, didn’t have a steady, wasn’t involved-a fact I had come to terms with but was suddenly, as I stood there facing down the woman who’d stolen my man, regarding as a spectacular source of shame.
“I’m happy to hear that,” she said. “You know, I thought about calling you a thousand times, but I didn’t have your number, didn’t even know where you lived.” I told her that I lived in a two-bedroom apartment in a doorman building on East Seventeenth Street between Third Avenue and Irving Place. I also told her I was the publicity director at Lowry and Trammell, the publishing company that had just released the autobiography of Ozzy Osbourne’s wife.
“You work at Lowry and Trammell?” she repeated. “That’s an amazing coincidence, because-” She stopped herself. Perhaps she was about to brag about having slept with Ozzy Osbourne before deciding to sleep with my fiance instead. “So you’re doing okay, Amy? You really are?”
Well, now she was pissing me off, because it was obvious she still felt sorry for me, still viewed me as this pathetic creature who couldn’t hold on to a prize like Stuart.
“I’m doing more than okay,” I said, trying not to sound defensive, even though I could hear the slight edge in my voice.
“I’m glad. So am I,” she said, and out came the gory details: the waterfront estate, the famous interior designer she’d hired to “do” the house, Stuart’s fabulous job as chief operating officer of his family’s chain of gourmet food markets, her fabulous job as the host of some obscure local radio show in Westchester County, and-this was the worst-their recent decision to “get us pregnant.” I was puking, mentally.
“But enough about me,” she said with a hearty laugh, as if she honestly thought I would laugh, too. “How’s your love life? Are you seeing anyone?”
I couldn’t say no. I just couldn’t. Not only did I not want her to rush back to Stuart with the headline that I was still pining for him but, as I indicated, I felt the need to do something to her, to punch her without punching her, scream at her without screaming at her, hurt her the way she’d hurt me. And so I answered her question by telling her a big fat lie. Marianne would have termed what I did passive-aggressive and ordered me back into therapy for another three years, but, therapy or no therapy, I had to show my best enemy that I was doing just as well as she was, that I had rebounded courageously in the romance department, despite the vicious blow she’d dealt me.
“You bet I’m seeing somebody,” I said with a smile and a jaunty toss of my head. “I’m engaged.” Oh, why not, I figured. I’ll never see her again after today, so the lie can’t come back to haunt me.
“That’s wonderful,” she said in a tone that felt patronizing, even if it wasn’t intended to be. “When’s the wedding?”
“In six months,” I announced. “I’m very excited.”
“Of course you are,” she said. “Who’s the lucky guy?”
“No one you know,” I said, not bothering to mention that he was no one I knew, either.
We made a few more attempts at chitchat-she actually suggested we have lunch sometime, if you can imagine it-but no phone numbers were exchanged, and after an awkward beat or two, we went our separate ways.
It occurs to me that I’ve neglected to tell you the name of my former best friend. It’s Tara. Tara Messer. As I walked away from her that day, I smiled to myself, replaying her look of surprise when I’d told her I was getting married. She’d lied to me and now I’d lied to her, and it felt like justice, the kind women understand. Tit for tit, if you will. But justice implies an ending, and I don’t want to mislead you: The story of my tortured relationship with Tara is just beginning.
Jane’s 11th novel, Best Enemies, is the story of two former best friends who run into each other after a long estrangement. It’s a very funny tale that proves there are two sides to every friendship…
Amy Sherman is doing just fine – nice apartment in Manhattan, good job as publicity director at a publisher, decent social life – until she runs into Tara Messer, the beautiful blonde prom queen who was once her best friend. It’s been four years since Tara stole Stuart Lasher, Amy’s fiance – four years since Amy swore she’d stop playing second fiddle to spotlight-hog Tara. But when Tara, who is now blissfully married to Stuart, asks whether she’s dating anyone, Amy can’t bear to admit there’s no man in her life. Instead, she claims she’s getting married in six months, figuring the lie will never come back to haunt her. The next day, Amy learns that her publishing house has just acquired Tara’s lifestyle book. Now, she not only has to promote her nemesis to the media, she also has to dig up a temporary Mr. Right to show off in front of Tara and Stuart. In desperation, she turns to bestselling mystery writer Tony Stiles, who has no idea what he’s in for. And in the course of playing a game of payback, Amy finds herself vulnerable to yet another betrayal. As hilarious as it is romantic, Best Enemies is a cautionary tale about trying to keep up appearances, even with the person who knows you best.