July 2003

Veronica Bond

21st Century Fox

Guiding Girls' Lives

Being a girl is hard work -- so hard that some think it ought to come with its own instruction manual. There is no doubt that reconciling societal notions of femininity with your own personality and desires can be a daunting task and it's only natural to wish for a little extra guidance on the way to womanhood. In two books, The Go-Girl Guide and The Fabulous Girl's Guide to Decorum, three women attempt to provide just that. Having survived their twenties, these women reflect upon the decade in the hopes of becoming the wise mentors essential in such a period of adjustment. Are they successful? Somewhat, but certainly less so than they so contentedly believe themselves to be.

Subtitled Surviving Your 20s with Savvy, Soul, and Style, Julia Bourland's The Go-Girl Guide is intended to speak directly to the female college graduate at the brink of this tumultuous decade. Careers, love lives, bodily changes, support groups, and finances comprise the five sections of the book which is interspersed with snippets of interviews Bourland conducted with twenty-something women. Consequently, the advice has a big-sisterly feel to it, each women's voice lending a bit of I-survived-it-and-so-will-you comfort. Her finest moment occurs when she details the outrage she felt at the start of her 20s: "I was bored. I was angry! This wasn't what my 20s were supposed to be! Where was that glamorous and important job I was supposed to have been actively recruited for while I was still at college? Where were all the sophisticated dates? What was up with my stomach lately?" Bourland's main objective is to identify with the reader and let her know that others have come through the decade intact, as will you. "To every other 20-something out there," she continues, "I offer this reassuring bit of reality: despite lack of evidence from the media, which like to portray us as carefree priestesses of youth, most of us are just as lost, stressed, lonely, angry, envious, confused, and neurotic as you."

It's not that Bourland's advice isn't decent. She warns against entering grad school without really knowing what you want from it, she encourages making the first move with men, and she addresses not only the changes that occur in relationships with friends and family as we begin to age, but also in our relationships with our bodies and self-images. The final chapter on finances explains in detail the importance of keeping a budget, getting out of debt, and starting a retirement plan as soon as possible. Much of her advice is supplemented with a list of books and online resources, found at the end of the guide. The problem is that the guide as a whole, however, is hit-or-miss. While Bourland provides plenty of sound advice, she does so in an overly soothing manner, that big-sister sentiment becoming grating after the first few sections. Some may feel pacified with her there, there sympathetic assurance that everything will be all right, but I couldn't help feeling a bit patronized, especially during the chapter on careers. Numerous women laughed about the tough times they endured before landing that all important, satisfying job - something that is easy to be smug about while in the comfort of that job, but something that is just depressing whilst ensconced firmly on the other side of it. Likewise, much of the love advice made me want to cringe for the simple fact that it seemed at all necessary to the book. Most of this space is spent discussing how to screen guys, the end result being a checklist of who not to date, the majority of which is "men who treat you like crap." The extensive amount of time spent on this greatly saddens me.

While Bourland uses her close emotional proximity to the topic as her strongest driving force, this is also her greatest fault. The book is riddled with her personal anecdotes, as if she were trying to give proof her authority on the subject instead of letting the advice speak for itself. Instead of lending credence, this sort of overture only leaves the author appearing in desperate need of your approval.

Though directed at the same 20-something crowd, Kim Izzo and Ceri Marsh's The Fabulous Girl's Guide to Decorum presents itself as much more as a guide to impeccable etiquette than a fluffy self-help manual. Izzo and Marsh were similarly driven by personal experiences to being work on the book: "The idea for this book came to us gradually over the course of one too many encounters with the socially inept, suffering through bad dinners and enduring thoughtless comments." The Fabulous Girl (FG) is the authors' epitome of the socially graceful woman, a sort of Martha Stewart meets Sex and the City, comfortable schmoozing at a company dinner party as well as behind the scenes hosting her own.

If a bit sillier, the FG's Guide is also more fun and far less patronizing than The Go-Girl Guide. This guide offers pointers on surviving those entry-level jobs that just pay the rent, dealing with celebrity friends, decorating the home, and maintaining relationships of both the platonic and romantic sort. The guide's mantra, "be nice and assume niceness in others," is demonstrated in a narrative revolving about three characters - Jill and her two friends Missy and Elenor - and their interactions with the not-so-fabulous world. Throughout, Jill takes on what the girls call "Jill Jobs" - those entry-level positions we accept to be able to pay the rent, finally embraces her dream of writing, suffers through her parents divorce, Elenor's on-again off-again relationship with a hated boyfriend, endures ugly bridesmaid dresses at Missy's wedding, and dates a series of men, ending up with the aptly named "Nice Guy." Much of the advice is similar to that given in The Go-Girl Guide - budgeting help, determining the worth of a potential suitor, juggling social time with work time - but it's presented much more simply, and perhaps that is what makes it a bit more likable.

It's much easier to agree with the individual suggestions filling this book. The FG is punctual and compassionate, her greatest asset is her loyalty to her friends, she does not lose herself in relationships with men, is a hassle-free houseguest, and never stops reading for pleasure. This type of advice is directed towards shaping a cosmopolitan woman, instead of just a Cosmo woman. Here, too, is a list of men to avoid, given names such as "the dark brooder" and the "one-sided man." The FG has numerous friends and acquaintances because "she is charming, witty, well-presented, polite, gracious, warm, and an intent listener. Who wouldn't be seduced by such a presence?" While that may portray the authors as a bit self-assured, self-assurance is a much more attractive quality than Bourland's piteous empathy.

Neither book is essential for surviving the 20s with grace - a fair amount of common sense and intelligence ought to take care of that - but nor are they harmful. Some may welcome the personal feeling of Bourland's writing while feeling put off by the more directed styles of Izzo and Marsh. Both books are entertaining, but they're just not much more than that. For guides that claim to have the answers to surviving your 20s, both are quite limited in scope, their target audience being the post-college-graduate, middle class, heterosexual, career driven female. Sure, it would be great to have the advice of someone who's experienced all the angst and confusion of being a woman in this particular decade, but seek it from someone you know. Not someone who presumes to know you.

The Go-Girl Guide by Julia Bourland
Contemporary Books
ISBN: 0809224763
331 pages

The Fabulous Girl's Guide to Decorum by Kim Izzo and Ceri Marsh
Broadway Books
ISBN: 0767910109
300 pages