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International mystery girl

Olivia Joules and the Overactive Imagination A Novel Helen Fielding Viking: 306 pp., $24.95

June 27, 2004|Carol Wolper | Carol Wolper is the author of the novels "The Cigarette Girl," "Secret Celebrity" and, most recently, "Mr. Famous."

Helen FIELDING has gone from chick lit to flick lit.

Best known for ushering in a wave of girlie books with her bestseller, "Bridget Jones's Diary," Fielding has gone Hollywood with her latest novel, "Olivia Joules and the Overactive Imagination." Not only is the movie business a key part of the plot but the story itself unfolds like a big-screen action adventure.

Olivia Joules, born Rachel Pixley in the British town of Worksop, is the kind of plucky heroine that Kathleen Turner played to perfection in "Romancing the Stone." She's smart, gutsy and attractive enough to inspire a case of obsession at first sight. Pierre Ferramo, the man of questionable background who fancies her, would make a good argument for why looking good can be hazardous to a young woman's health. Not that our plucky Olivia is deterred by a hazard or two. Quite the opposite. Too excited to sleep, she phones her best girlfriend back in London to report that she just met an Osama bin Laden look-alike, who could possibly be a member of Al Qaeda.

Clearly some suspension of disbelief is required to continue this journey. A Bin Laden look-alike chugging champagne with fashionista wannabes at Miami's Delano Hotel is a stretch, especially if readers don't usually enjoy suspending their reality-based criteria. Yet the reader stays with Fielding because she grounds her flights of fancy with astute observations. She picks up on the oddity of people who say "that's funny" instead of laughing. As if "funniness was something you observed from afar rather than something you participated in." One of her more somber reflections poses the question of what she would have done if she'd been caught in the World Trade Center towers on Sept. 11, 2001. Would she have been one of those who stayed and did as they were told or would she have thought for herself and set off down the stairs?

Thought-provoking asides continue as Fielding whisks us off to 007 territory, complete with gadgets galore, high-tech maneuvers and underwater hideaways. Or is that spyaways? At times it seems as if everyone is running surveillance on everyone else. By the time Olivia wings her way toward her rendezvous with destiny (in Hollywood, naturally) -- which is the big payoff finale -- we are deep in James Bond territory. So deep that, as Olivia's plane comes in for a landing in the Sudan, you can easily imagine a soundtrack album featuring Johnny Rivers singing "Secret Agent Man."

Given Olivia's adventures in espionage, it's hard to resist renaming her Jane Bond. However, the less serious-sounding Janey Bond might be a more accurate moniker. Though Fielding's heroine can hold her own with the big boys, she never surrenders her girlie side. When alone with an increasingly scary Ferramo, who insists on making a heartfelt toast to their future, Olivia wonders if his whole performance is designed to make her feel terrified one moment and pampered the next. Or as she so cleverly puts it, "like getting your legs waxed by a smooth talking but incompetent beautician." Later, after becoming better educated at the art of self protection, she rejects wearing a brooch with a hand-ejected tranquilizer dart on the grounds that anyone younger than 60 wearing a brooch would immediately look suspicious.

Fielding's wit doesn't disappoint, but to fully enjoy this book you might need, if not an overactive imagination, at least an active one. To be intrigued by the underlying theme, however, requires no leap of faith or fantasizing. Whether Olivia is being lighthearted or profound, whether finding a little comfort over a cup of tea or being terrorized 80 feet below the deep blue sea, she struggles to find the line between paranoia and intuition. And whether your address is Worksop, Hollywood, Miami or the Sudan, who in this crazy world can't relate to that struggle? My guess is no one. *

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