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A Story Out of Africa and Into the Surreal World of Celebrity

March 11, 2001|ROCHELLE O'GORMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Years before Helen Fielding splashed into our pop culture consciousness, she wrote "Cause Celeb," a finely crafted satire of celebrity charity events. Though published in England in 1995, it has only now been released here in both print and audio editions. (Brilliance Audio; unabridged fiction; seven cassettes; 10 hours; $32.95; read by Bernadette Quigley. Also available in abridged and CD formats from Brilliance.)

Rosie Richardson is a publicity flack who falls in love with Oliver, an emotionally unavailable, abusive and utterly adorable TV celebrity. He teaches her how to survive in the inane and catty world of the famous and overindulged. After a trip to Africa to deliver some relief supplies for her publicity-hungry boss, Rosie decides to chuck it all and make a life for herself in a place where she can actually make a difference. She becomes a relief worker in the fictional country of Nambula.

Several years later, a plague of locusts has forced thousands of refugees across the borders of Nambula. Thinking she can put together a benefit with the help of the celebrities she knows in London, Rosie heads back to England.

The juxtaposition between the all-too-real world of Africa and the almost surreal neuroses of the Westerners is not only humorous, but also often touching.

The novel is tightly crafted, considering that Fielding's two successive novels, "Bridget Jones' Diary: A Novel" and "Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason," were rambling and unstructured. In "Cause Celeb" she captures the absurdity of diplomatic snafus and celebrity navel-gazing while displaying an amazing depth of understanding for those trapped in unlivable situations.

Fielding's lively dialogue, sharp humor and finely detailed descriptions work extremely well in an oral format. Although this moves quickly, it has a vividness that stays with the listener.

The production, unfortunately, does not quite live up to the material. Brilliance nicely bookends each cassette with lively, African-sounding music, but the ambient noise throughout is a problem.

Narrator Quigley does a good job with the many voices in the story. She certainly captures the preening qualities of the celebs, and quite deftly delivers several variations of British accents. She also does a marvelous job with a charismatic Nambulan character named Mohammed. She lowers her voices, slows her pace and pulls off a quite believable African accent.

But when she attempts German, American or Canadian accents, the results are disastrous. These broad and unconvincing accents so interrupt the flow of the narrative that she shouldn't have attempted them.

*

On the subject of frothy British humor, there is another import from Brilliance Audio, "Amanda's Wedding," by Jenny Colgan. This is lightweight fiction, the kind that fills the void when there are no mindless sitcoms on TV. (Unabridged fiction; six cassettes; 8 hours; $29.95; read by Tanya Eby. Also available in abridged and CD formats.)

Melanie and Fran are 20-something Londoners who are appalled to learn that their childhood pal, Amanda, has lassoed a Scottish laird. While Mel and Fran are wisecracking, working-class gals, Amanda's dad long ago earned a vast fortune, catapulting Amanda into the ranks of the nouveau riche desperate for an aristocratic title.

Our two heroines find Amanda, and her shallow, phony friends, to be absolutely hideous creatures. But Fraser McConnel, the laird with the crumbling castle, is deemed down to earth and quite wonderful.

Teaming up with Angus, Fraser's younger and angrier brother, the trio decides to persuade the intended groom that the wedding would be a mistake. Unfortunately, nothing terribly unpredictable happens as they do this.

Though it can be difficult to focus on heavy-duty fiction--Russian literature, say--while wearing a Walkman, this is so insubstantial that you may start to drift off.

Narrator Tanya Eby's voice is a bit thin and high. Not enough to put you off, but not what you would call melodious. She does not deepen it realistically for male voices, though she tries. She does a fine job, though, of creating various English accents, and her Scottish burr is quite natural. Her major flaw is the rapidity of her delivery. She reads the text so quickly that she sounds nearly frantic in places.

Light piano music is used to begin and end the cassettes. Unfortunately, like so many of the productions from Brilliance Audio, ambient noise is always present in the form of dull, low static in the background. It is not overpowering, but it is there.

*

Rochelle O'Gorman reviews audio books every other week. Next week: Dick Lochte on mystery books.

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