I was dumped by my boyfriend on my 21st birthday, Bookaholics. I tell you this not to evoke sympathy some 20 years later (although a collective “aww” wouldn’t go amiss) but to provide context for my next confession: I have a thing for reality tv shows. Whilst these two statements sound entirely unconnected, there is an important link – I found myself heartbroken and newly single the very summer Big Brother launched in the UK for the first time. Having just graduated with a degree most employers instantly dismissed as meaningless (quite why my in-depth knowledge of topography in the work of Jane Austen wasn’t deemed relevant to the workplace, I have no idea), I literally had nothing to do except binge-watch daytime television and wallow in self-pity. I was the perfect captive audience for what seemed in that moment such a ground-breaking, innovative offering and it kick-started my ongoing fascination with cheap programming designed for mass consumption. (I have never watched Love Island, however. I have some standards). So it was no real surprise that I was immediately drawn to The Shelf by Helly Acton, a novel centred on a fictional show designed to teach women how to be more attractive to men. (I know, I KNOW. Bear with me, this gets better!)
Our protagonist, Amy, has been dating Jamie for 2 years and is frustrated the relationship isn’t moving forward. Blinded by societal pressure to settle down and have children like many of her friends, she overlooks the signs that he may not be long-term material and focuses instead on trying to be the woman he wants. Thinking he is taking her on an exotic holiday, Amy is lured to a west London studio where Jamie proceeds to dump her in front of a live tv audience and then learns he has registered her as a contestant on The Shelf, a show where newly liberated women can learn all about where they may be going wrong when it comes to men. Our heroine is understandably horrified but chooses to take part as the money she is offered will allow her to travel when the nightmare is over.
Don’t be fooled by either this description or the book’s chick-lit exterior: this is the most fiercely feminist story I have read in years. Along with her fellow contestants, Amy embarks on a journey of rebellion against the misogynistic challenges set by the programme’s producers (tasks include looking after a new-born baby for several days to test their maternal instincts and organising the perfect tea party, where they lose points for crossing their legs in an un-ladylike way) and finds true female camaraderie with a group of disparate women she would otherwise never have met. Freed from the binds of her oppressive relationship, she gradually finds confidence in her own voice and realises just how restrictive gender roles can be. I don’t want to say too much else for fear of giving away spoilers, but the key theme of this text is the importance of respecting individual choice if that choice has been made freely, without subjugation to cultural pressure. It also vividly portrays just how far reality tv has gone to gain viewing figures, with the tasks becoming more ridiculous as time goes on. This book made me want to rant and rage at the patriarchy – to scream at the sexist values that still drive so much of the world around us – but it also made me laugh and cry and realise how empowered we all are when we learn to be true to ourselves. (Yes that’s a cliché, but it’s also true).
I never did find a job where my in-depth knowledge of all things Austen served a purpose but fortunately I no longer spend all day on the sofa watching rubbish (I save that for the evenings instead). But I still know a good book when I read it and can adamantly state The Shelf is an absolute page-turner, difficult to put down, incredibly engaging and a powerful vehicle to deliver some really important messages: if only I had read this when I was 21, I may just have got in first, finished the relationship and saved myself some heartache. Do yourself a favour and pick up a copy of this. You won’t regret it.