Review: Shopgirl

“He never complicates a desire by overthinking it, unlike Mirabelle, who spins a cocoon around an idea until it is immobile.” ~ Steve Martin, Shopgirl

Shopgirl by Steve Martin
130 pages
Published by Hachette Books, 2000
Genre: Fiction
Re-readability: I don’t know if I’ll reread this one anytime soon, but I may come back to it someday.
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Reviewed by Pete
Spoiler-free review

I was given Steve Martin’s Shopgirl just a few months ago by my recently passed grandfather. He’s given me a lot of books over the years, and I have to admit I’ve struggled with most of them, but not this one. You can find his comments scattered through our reviews here.

Mirabelle Buttersfield sells gloves at an LA Neimans. She is a 28-year-old artist who isn’t doing much art, or much socializing, or much dating. She is quiet and lonely and constantly battling depression.

In short succession, she meets two very similar men. The first is Jeremy Kraft, who is 25 and thinks very little about others and makes Mirabelle pay for many of the dates he asks her on.

The second is Ray Porter, a millionaire in his fifties who first notices Mirabelle at her miserable job.

Ray and Mirabelle begin a strange, lopsided relationship. She lacks ambition and momentum, and he is emotionally clueless despite having a marriage behind him. Neither of them sees their relationship the same way as the other, but they don’t realize this until much later.

There is a lot of story packed into this little novella, and it makes me wish all books were paced similarly. I like it when things happen, and I like it when those things carry lots of meaning. Every line of dialogue is worth examining here. Martin understands people—but most of all, he understands how people perceive each other.

If Martin has ever taken a creative writing class, he has clearly made it his goal to defy the “show don’t tell” mantra as boldly as possible. But Martin does “tell don’t show” right. He says, “Look at this person. Now look at how others look at this person. Now look at how this person looks at themselves. Now look at how this person looks at others. Now look at how you’re looking at this person after learning all of this.”

He pulls it off by creating complicated and ever-changing relationships. Even though everything is laid out on the table and you’re never unaware of a character’s thoughts, things are changing so rapidly that I constantly had to reframe the story and the current conflict. That doesn’t mean it’s hard to follow—I probably read this book in a total of about two hours, only a little bit longer than the 2005 movie adaptation (by Martin).

Though the story seems to want to be a romantic comedy, it never really is. In many ways, it reads like a tragedy, but this book didn’t bring me down. I enjoyed every awkward encounter and derailed conversation, even if I was cringing the whole time.

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