By Pauline M. Millard
For a single guy who lives alone and was once an army platoon leader, Kyle Smith knows a lot about the inner workings of women. He knows about fancy face creams and handbags and the importance of a good blowout.
Smith, a slim redhead with a striking resemblance to Conan O’Brien, said that the idea for his new book “A Christmas Caroline” came from friends getting married and all he was left with was women to keep him company. Through these friends he learned about the daily beauty rituals and shopping excursions of the fairer sex. It seemed natural that he could parlay all this intel into a book to follow up his 2004 debut, “Love Monkey.”
“A Christmas Caroline” is a far cry from “Love Monkey.” “Love Monkey” was the first in a small trend of “lad lit” books that told stories of romantic travails from a man’s point of view. The sub-genre never really took off, but Smith’s book was eventually turned into a short-lived television series on CBS.
Instead of returning to the formula that gave him his initial success, Smith tried a new avenue. “A Christmas Caroline” is a chick lit version of “A Christmas Carol,” set during the holiday season in Manhattan at a fictional, Conde Nast-type publishing company. Smith said that he was looking to freshen “A Christmas Carol” while still keeping the themes and characters timeless.
In place of Ebineezer Scrooge, Smith gives us Caroline, an editor at a glossy fashion magazine. She’s obsessed with products and clothes, and will step on people with a very sharp heel as long as she gets the accessories du jour.
“I think we all know people like Caroline, people who are just obsessed with getting the new boots from Gucci or whatever,” he said. “I wanted people to like Caroline, to sort of root for her and against her at the same time. Kind of like the Grinch. You kind of like him even though he’s nasty, because he’s sort of fun.”
Setting the book in a Conde-Nast type of company could have spiraled the story into a horrible cliche, since that is also the setting for 2003’s “The Devil Wears Prada.” Smith figured, though, that since “A Christmas Caroline” wasn’t about real people or mocking any real editors, the setting could work.
“It’s more the mindset of gimme, gimme, gimme what’s new,” Smith said. “Which I thought was perfect for a scrooge-like character. What struck me when re-reading A Christmas Carol was that Scrooge was a rich guy who didn’t eat. He was very well-paid but he didn’t eat. Who does that remind you of? Fashionistas. They’re very well paid and they never eat. They’re starving themselves.”
With a team of women informally advising him while he wrote the manuscript, Smith said he also read fashion magazines in order to better understand fashionistas.
“I’ve definitely logged more hours with Lucky magazine than most guys,” he said. “It’s the kind of magazine that a woman like Caroline would be really into. She wouldn’t be reading The New Republic.”
Smith admitted that he had to have his manuscript vetted by a few female friends to make sure he got all the nuances right, and a few times he was off the mark. In one scene set during New York’s fashion week he mentioned the show of one Italian designer, only to learn later that the designer never shows in New York, only in Milan.
Switching gears from male to female characters could have been wrought with error, but the real judges, actual women, seem to find the book quite believable.
“Hats off to him for getting into the female mind,” said Laurie Chittenden, an executive editor at William Morrow books. “He managed to create female characters while not falling into stereotypes.”
Male or female, Chittenden said that Smith has a great eye for relationships and especially how people interact with each other.
“I think he’s saying a lot of smart things about people in their 20s and 30s and their relationships, and saying it in a smart way,” Chittenden said. “That’s the mark of a skilled writer.”
Kyle Smith may be venturing into chick lit for the first time with “A Christmas Caroline” but he kept his signature wit. Surrounding Caroline is a team of quirky characters, such as the overly ironic yet too-cool-to-care love interest named Trot, as well as an Eastern European housekeeper whose job it is to rid the house of unwanted snacks.
He writes, “Last year’s Tokyo collection, a new discovery, had a chewy, solemn texture and a powerfully insistent after taste for that mysterious flair of the Orient. And here was the genuine classic, the Atlanta stash straight from Coke headquarters, as straightforward and zippy as a fifteen-year-old cheerleader. The Atlanta stuff didn’t age well, so Caroline had 12-packs flown up weekly and discarded and leftovers.”