Nightmares of a Shopaholic
I’ve never been married, and I’ve bought my wedding dress.
It was a skin-melting summer day. K. and I were going to this perfect vintage store, we have to go, I really want to take you. But she couldn’t remember its name, or whether it was off Columbus or Amsterdam, so we kept stumbling into these half blocks, asphalt shimmering under our sweating shoes.
Suddenly, sure as a homing pigeon, she wheeled around a corner to a gated sliver of silver and pressed an anonymous black button. Then K. pressed her hand to the double-barred iron door, and it yielded.
The store was a riot of color. Every corner had multiple layers of stuff, so you couldn’t put your eye down on one thing without it landing on five more: golden silk handkerchiefs, tallboy cabinets draped with ropy silken tassels, iridescent velvet slippers, a bristly thick, glossy black, lancelet fur capelet, gumdrop earrings that might have been rhinestones or Tiffany. The accessories had their own accessories: there were opera glasses with an eyeglasses chain on which dangled an opera-glasses charm. My molars ached.
Oh! K.’s feathery exclamation snapped my vision into focus toward a dress form. The dress was white with the faintest tinge of seafoam green, beaded and stiff through the torso and then releasing into a tulle storm cloud that gathered barometric pressure above the ground at thigh height.
It was the worst dress.
This dress is amazing, said K. It’s so good. It would look so good on you.
I swallowed. So good, I parroted.
The shopkeeper’s ears flared up. I don’t know who made it, she said, but it’s in totally perfect condition. I think it could have been custom. She flicked her eyes along my body like a tape measure. You’d fit it perfectly.
No changing room, so I wriggled out of my tee and lost my shorts under the dress. K. and the shopkeeper whirled around me, zipping up the boning in one swoop like peeling a clementine in a single long perfect spiral. The dress cinched me and its skirt fell toward my knees, its marshmallow thunder hovering above the rug’s nap.
The saleswoman made all sorts of low squawks. K. cocked her head.
Yes, she cooed. Amazing on you. It’s perfect.
I felt the boning cut into me and felt nothing at all.
I’m serious, said K. This could be your wedding dress.
I floated above my body and watched it: a ballerina in a music box, two legs fused on one foot.
Oh my God, I can see it, said K. I could see it too. A blurry man in a tuxedo; K. behind me in garnet and gold. The dress whiter than white, backlit in seafoam, the way lights in a dentist’s office are white because they’re against a cold-hot fluorescent background.
$750, more than a month of my first rent.
That’s actually a really good price, K. said, sotto voce. You have to get it. Her pale eyes narrowed.
I–. I can’t. I shot my eyes down. I really, literally can’t, I muttered, I mean I only have a debit card and I don’t have that much money on there right now.
K. tossed her hair around her face. I’ll pay for it now, she said. You’ll pay me back.
It’s your wedding dress, she said. We found your wedding dress. It’s so perfect!
In 2000, the English writer Madeleine Sophie Wickham, who also wrote novels with names like The Tennis Party and Cocktails for Three, published her first book under the moniker Sophie Kinsella: The Secret Dreamworld of a Shopaholic. In 2001, the book was released in the U.S. as Confessions of a Shopaholic. Shopaholic was a bestseller on both sides of the pond, and Kinsella became queen of what was then the relatively newly coined yet age-old genre of chick lit.
Chick lit, according to Stephanie Harzewski’s Chick Lit and Postfeminism, originated at Princeton in the eighties as a derogatory nickname for the material Elaine Showalter taught in a course called Feminist Literary Tradition (think “Rocks for Jocks” or “Stars for Stoners”). In 1995, Cris Mazza and Jeffrey DeShell’s edited anthology Chick-Lit: Postfeminist Fiction reclaimed the term, with a shiny new hyphen, as a descriptor of experimental stories by women which had gone under the radar in the dick-centric avant-garde. The anthology featured pieces like Carole Maso’s “Sappho Sings the World Ecstatic”—a love affair fantasia between Sappho and Maya Deren partially narrated as a film script—and Kim Addonizio’s “Reading,” a Thomas Bernhard–esque metafictional monologue inside the mind of a woman hurtling through hallucinatorily vivid adventures while lying sick in bed, reading.
By Y2K, chick lit had lost its hyphen and its edge. It was now used widely to describe smooth-brain books with girlish narrators who certainly weren’t interrogating their relationship to the feminist literary tradition. Chick lit novels featured kooky, klutzy, adorable characters who squeezed into bandage dresses and salivated over Jimmy Choos; they prattled on in a hectic present tense. Think Bridget Jones’s Diary, think Sex and the City; think straight white women lusting after Louboutins and mediocre men.
Confessions of a Shopaholic follows the escapades of Becky Bloomwood, the titular addict, who acquires more and more stuff and plays increasingly herculean games of chicken with credit card companies. A film version of Confessions of a Shopaholic was released in 2009. The adaptation actually isn’t bad—New York’s department stores sparkle, the costuming by Patricia Field (of Sex and the City fame) is superb; indeed the Guardian defended Confessions in 2021, observing that “at its core, the film is attempting to comment on financial responsibility and more generally, what it looks like to screw up in your 20s.” But the timing of the release, in the middle of a global recession, was tone-deaf, and the film landed with a wet-balloon thud.
The Shopaholic books, though, continue to get written. Kinsella’s Shopaholic series is infinitely iterative—Confessions of a Shopaholic, Shopaholic Takes Manhattan, Shopaholic Ties the Knot, et cetera—with the same pattern. Like Vanity Fair’s Becky Sharp, our Bex covets stuff, buys stuff, undergoes some sort of rollicking plot twist; hilarity ensues, Becky almost goes over the brink of financial despair, and finally, she triumphs.
Becky has no interest in atoning for her sins. Taken together, the books are an iridescent portrait of addiction. As debt piles around her, Becky responds by ostriching into bags and boots, embracing a deeply troubled core fantasy: no matter what happens, she’ll always be able to shop her way out of it.
Confessions is supposed to provide the reader with bubblegum pleasure, but when I read it, I get knots of anxiety in my stomach, like I’ve just chewed two packs straight through. My breath gets shallow, my chest constricts. I’m not nervous for Becky. I’m nervous for myself.
“Silly novels by Lady Novelists,” wrote George Eliot in 1856, “are a genus with many species, determined by the particular quality of silliness that predominates in them—the frothy, the prosy, the pious, or the pedantic.” Special scorn went to the “mind-and-millinery” breed: the heroine always the “ideal woman in feelings, faculties, and flounces,” attracting the male with her whimsy. Eliot prognosticated the dangers of the chick lit novel: it all seems light and breezy, yet its addictiveness insidiously inscribes the woman as a whimsical accessory.
Perhaps ironically, though inevitably, Eliot is also the best at describing the allure of objects and the magical hold they can have on heroines. She pokes fun at covetous creatures, but she also skewers those who claim to be above stuff. My very favorite moment in Middlemarch, George Eliot’s perfect 1871 novel about an English Midland town in the mid-1830s,happens at the beginning of Book One. Celia and Dorothea, the sisters Brooke, open their mother’s jewelry casket for the first time since her death. Dorothea pretends to pooh-pooh the finery, prompting Celia to coo over her sister, fawning over how gorgeous Dorothea would look in the jewels. When Celia puts them on, they’re mere rocks. But when Dorothea dons them, wearing jewelry becomes a transcendent experience: “ ‘They are lovely,’ said Dorothea, slipping the ring and bracelet on her finely-turned finger and wrist, and holding them towards the window on a level with her eyes. All the while her thought was trying to justify her delight in the colours by merging them in her mystic religious joy.” Adornment isn’t selfish, Dorothea selfishly decides: it’s an efflorescence of how special you are.
Yet shopping novels also provide their heroines with an edge: acquiring goods gives them ambition, and they form visions of themselves as they climb the capitalist ladder. Émile Zola’s The Ladies’ Paradise, from 1883, is the first department-store novel, telling the story of a young shopgirl, Denise Baudu, and her rise through the ranks at a thinly veiled interpretation of the iconic Bon Marché in Paris. The department store becomes a fantasy site, a place where women envision alternate versions of themselves. In midcentury novels like Rona Jaffe’s The Best of Everything, secretaries visit the department store during their lunch hours to dream about the kind of person they’ll be in this lipstick, with that bag.
In the shopping act that triggers the events of Confessions, the first in the Shopaholic series, Becky spies a sale sign in a shop window and sees her scarf. “Oh God, yes. I remember this one. It’s made of silky velvet, overprinted in a paler blue and dotted with iridescent beads. As I stare at it, I can feel little invisible strings, silently tugging me toward it. I have to touch it. I have to wear it.” It’s like Dorothea’s jewels, which have a certain magpie magic: Becky didn’t know that she was missing this object in her life before she chose to walk into the shop, but now that she’s here, the entire course of her life has been retrofitted to lead her toward it. And once Becky sees the scarf, she’s in a postlapsarian world. Even though she didn’t even know of the scarf’s existence before, she is now possessed to possess it.
There’s a subplot of Shopaholic Takes Manhattan, book two of the series, that almost makes economic sense: Becky gets hired as a personal shopper at Barneys. The department store job seems like a potentially perfect sublimation of her desires: Becky gets to conjure up fantasy lives, but through the credit cards of others.
I need you to come to Barneys with me, said K. I need you to tell me I should buy this coat.
Sueded leather on one side, rabbit fur on the other, midnight blue.
What do you think, said K. She removed it as if in a trance, turning it outside in, its surface switching in a mesmerizingly slow spiral from leather to fur, like a lava lamp. With the leather side out, the coat floated around her.
Where will you wear it, I asked, which was wrong, since it provoked a withering glare. Everywhere, she snapped. That’s the thing. I’ll just wear it everywhere. It’ll just be my coat.
I looked at the price tag and looked away.
I need it, said K. You know I have these events, like, it’s cold in the city. Also it’s really cold. Also it’s actually two coats, like, I would actually wear it both ways, so it’s actually a great price, said K., sotto voce, as though making a confession, giving me a deep secret.
What do you think, said K., no but what do you really think.
It’s a great coat, I said.
No but what do you really think, said K. An endless labyrinth of stuff, mirrors instead of windows, a bright fluorescent glare instead of time.
You look amazing, ticked out of my mouth like a receipt.
Becky loves leading herself toward temptation. And her powers of rationalization are so strong that the world animates itself around her to urge her into purchase mode. One scene finds Becky in a convent, coveting the garish stained glass window, when she spies a gift shop. The nun spies Becky and makes her move. “ ‘Don’t think of it as shopping,’ she says at last. ‘Think of it as making a donation.’ She leans forward. ‘You donate the money––and we give you a little something in return. You couldn’t really count it as shopping at all. More … an act of charity.’ ” How could we blame Becky when the devil on her shoulder coos to her in the voice of a literal nun?
Remember that green malachite dress I have, said K. She’d made me go with her to Barneys to buy it—a different Barneys than the fur coat one.
K. showed me the pop-up announcement online—it’s this amazing designer, she used to be a model, she said. The pop-up popped up that Tuesday and I went, without telling her, with my newly opened midnight blue credit card. I bought the label’s oversized blazer and pretended it was on sale. I put it on with my miniskirt and it was great.
On my birthday, I didn’t have any money left, not even on the navy card, and I put on the blazer with my miniskirt.
Where did you get that.
My heart stopped. I didn’t have to say anything.
Why did you go without telling me when I was the one who told you about the pop-up, she said. That’s really weird. I could feel her pale eyes boring into me.
I stood up too quickly and got dizzy, everything in front of me swirling into navy stars.
It’s okay, she said. It’s just really weird. You knew I wanted to go and then you went without me and then you didn’t tell me.
It’s okay, she said. Also it looks great.
I wore it that day and never again.
Chick lit, as a term, provoked its own backlash after getting overused. By 2012, Kinsella herself had abandoned the descriptor—“I say I write romantic comedies, cos that’s what they are,” she told the Guardian. But its heroines are thriving, and shopping. Emilys in Paris are bedecked in Patricia Field textures-on-textures (argyle on tartan on diamante). The Selling Sunset glamazons are strutting through the Los Angeles real estate market in sixteen-inch stilettos. Fashion’s narrative pendulum swings to the Christy Dawn boho eco-friendly ultrasustainable or the neo-neon pop-punk plastic princess; chick lit is here for both of these shoppable moments. And even if heteronormative romance is nominally still the scaffold in many shopping narratives, the men that populate today’s chick lit are significantly less important than the relationships between women––the camaraderie and rivalry they entail, and, frequently, both at once.
We should all have a best friend like Becky’s roommate, Suze, who is always her first emotional and financial backstop. Suze has access to magical family money and charges Becky for rent only whatever she can pay each month, or nothing at all. Suze is immune to the afflictions of shopping herself, but she’s a gifted rationalizer for Becky, a magic mirror who chirps in glee at every spree.
K. taught me how to shop, but unlike Suze, she loved to shop for herself, too.
When K. and I walked into our perfect store, which sold unmarked SoHo-labyrinth-clogcore, the saleswoman was wearing this pair of pants. High-waisted, a paper-bag waist, pleated so they looked buckled. Strawberry-brown tweed. They’re this incredible company, the woman said, everything they make is one size fits all.
We looked at each other.
This is kind of weird, right, K. said. Usually stuff is for one of us or the other, and it’s easy to tell which, right? But I actually think we should both try these on, for totally different reasons.
They looked great on her, gave her this hourglass silhouette she liked. I put them on and they made my waist look like nothing at all, which I liked. She bought them. I didn’t. We walked around the block. You have to buy them, she said. I’m going to buy them, I said. They were under five hundred dollars, and I had seven hundred or so, but the end of the month’s payday was in two days’ time, so that was fine. I went back. I wore them the next day, then never again.
Some things I never even wore. I put the wedding dress in a cardboard box and wrote in marker wedding dress. The Sharpie’s petroleum–wet dog stink made my head throb. Every time I moved apartments, I stashed it someplace I didn’t have to see: an overhead closet; an underbed bin; once, in the bathroom.
Becky Bloomwood will always come out on top. Her greatest weakness—compulsive consumption—is also her greatest strength. The Shopaholic series turns the spiral of addiction and unspools it into a magically successful thread. It’s like Chutes and Ladders, but the very chute that shot you to the bottom is the same one that will rocket you far higher than where any ladder-climbing could have gotten you in the first place. Instead of hitting rock bottom on a bender, Becky nosedives into a thousand-thread-count pillowy landing pad. This is terrible from many perspectives, but it’s fantastic as fiction. The Shopaholic formula is a perpetual motion machine.
Barneys has gone bankrupt, that vintage store is closed, those sample sales have vanished. The last time I moved apartments, in the trauma of stairs to truck to truck to stairs, when I took the wedding-dress box from under the bed, I made sure the movers lost it. K. and I don’t speak anymore.
But I’m not done with my fantasy lives. That trench coat, this architectural lamp, these glasses, will change my life. The wonderful and horrible seduction of the Shopaholic series is the way it constantly re-ups of the dream of no consequences. The high-camp fluffy romance of consumption may be dated, but what feels all too present is the sheer terror of the infinite hall of mirrors of rationalizing a purchase. Each is the very last one, and the very best—until the next.
Becky will be fine. I don’t know what I’ll be.
Adrienne Raphel is the author of Thinking Inside the Box: Adventures with Crosswords and the Puzzling People Who Can’t Live Without Them. Her latest collection of poetry, Our Dark Academia, was published by Rescue Press.