Shopgirl: A Novella

Shopgirl: A Novella

3.9 130
by Steve Martin

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One of our country's most acclaimed and beloved entertainers, Steve Martin has written a novella that is unexpectedly perceptive about relationships and life. Martin is profoundly wise when it comes to the inner workings of the human heart.

Mirabelle is the "shopgirl" of the title, a young woman, beautiful in a wallflowerish kind of way, who works behind the… See more details below


One of our country's most acclaimed and beloved entertainers, Steve Martin has written a novella that is unexpectedly perceptive about relationships and life. Martin is profoundly wise when it comes to the inner workings of the human heart.

Mirabelle is the "shopgirl" of the title, a young woman, beautiful in a wallflowerish kind of way, who works behind the glove counter at Neiman Marcus "selling things that nobody buys anymore . . ."

Slightly lost, slightly off-kilter, very shy, Mirabelle charms because of all that she is not: not glamorous, not aggressive, not self-aggrandizing. Still there is something about her that is irresistible.

Mirabelle captures the attention of Ray Porter, a wealthy businessman almost twice her age. As they tentatively embark on a relationship, they both struggle to decipher the language of love--with consequences that are both comic and heartbreaking. Filled with the kind of witty, discerning observations that have brought Steve Martin critical success, Shopgirl is a work of disarming tenderness.

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Editorial Reviews

Entertainment Weekly
Who'd have thought Martin, known (aside from his acting) for his smart, snarky New Yorker pieces, would pen a tender love story?...Martin's shift from public follies to private frailties registers as courageous and convincing.(Entertainment Weekly, September 29, 2000)
Steve Martin, who over the years has bravely transformed himself before the public eye from brilliant stand-up comedian to genial actor to writer... [has written] a hilarious but intense first novella...which is all about happiness and how to get there... One of the nicest things about this novel is the way it effortlessly bridges generations.(Vogue, October, 2000)
Wall Street Journal
His writing has sometimes been sweet, sometimes biting, occasionally intellectually boastful- but it has always been funny. (Wall Street Journal, October 6, 2000)
The book is like one of Mirabelle's sketches: small, deft, pensive, poignant — a moving still life.
Richard Corliss
A delicate, poignant modern romance about a shy shopgirl. —Time magazine
Los Angeles Times
Shopgirl reads as smoothly and pleasurably as the novels of the late W.M. Spackman, whose An Armful of Warm Girl easily won the prize 25 years ago for best title of a novel about foolish 50 year-old men.
Shopgirl is an Audrey Hepburn of a book: slim, lovely, and ever so old-fashioned.
It's the signature combination of exhilaration and vulnerability that Martin offers us with extraordinary confidence.
Shopgirl has some of Chekhov's autumn light about it: a story remembering all the really fine recent things.
New York Times
Steve Martin's most achieved work to date.
New York Post
His prose is almost Zen-like and his revelations superb.
True, he gave up the arrow in the head long ago, but how could a man who once acted out the Marty Robbins song "El Paso" with a bunch of chimpanzees in cowboy outfits (to supremely hilarious effect) settle for making dry Schrodinger's Cat references and drawn-out attempts at post-modern jokes about sledgehammers? Maybe it's his extended stay in Hollywood, or an overeager compulsion to be taken seriously as a writer, but Martin has suffered from a bad case of assumed audience.

His latest work, the novella Shopgirl, may be a sign that he's getting over it. Forgoing his role as the intelligentsia's wild and crazy guy this time around, Martin has opted instead to tell a simple, mostly serious story in a simple, mostly serious style. Shopgirl is about Mirabelle, a twenty-eight-year-old who works in the glove department of Neiman-Marcus in Los Angeles, "selling things that nobody buys anymore." She's lonely and depressed, but she has impeccable taste in clothes. A fiftyish divorced businessman named Ray Parker, himself a natty dresser, woos her with some initial help from his nice shoes.

Martin nimbly jumps back and forth between the heads of his characters to explore their feelings through every step of the relationship. Ultimately, though, nothing terribly profound comes of it. The reactions of each are so cookie-cutter male/female they seem straight out of the kinds of comedy routines that Martin used to mock so well in his stand-up acts. Little else in the book is illuminating either—the natural beauty and artificial injection of Los Angeles are glorified and condemned in the old familiar ways. There's even a sappy subplot involving Mirabelle's fathertrying to get over the psychological scars of Vietnam.

Martin was wise to make the book little more than one hundred pages. His brevity saves Shopgirl from becoming tedious, and his deft styling and nice descriptions keep the story flowing along. "The overhead lights reflect in the glass countertop and mingle with the gray and black of the gloves, resulting in a mother-of-pearl swirl that sometimes sends Mirabelle into a shallow hypnotic dream," reads one passage. The book is like that too, a shallow hypnotic dream that pulls you through to the end without leaving you feeling ripped off for the few hours invested. It's a quick and harmless read that shows the potential of a writer who shouldn't be satisified spooning out irony for the New Yorker set.
—Steve Wilson

Logan Hill
[A] modest, sensitive book about love and sex from the female perspective, and L.A. fairy tale about a sweet, sad artiste trapped behind the anchronistic glove counter.
New York Magazine
Kirkus Reviews
The delicacy of Martin's perception is so appealing that he

succeeds in building a novella... [and] It's... reassuring to think of the

author... as a concerned parent who gently heads off every answer readers

could possibly have about this bedtime story of loneliness faced and

conquered before he finally turns out the light.

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Product Details

Hachette Books
Publication date:
Sold by:
Hachette Digital, Inc.
Sales rank:
File size:
318 KB
Age Range:
13 - 18 Years

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

WHEN YOU WORK IN THE glove department at Neiman's, you are selling things that nobody buys anymore. These gloves aren't like the hard-working ones sold by L.L. Bean; these are so fine that a lady wearing them can still pick up a straight pin. The glove department is adjacent to the couture department and is really there for show. So a lot of Mirabelle's day is spent leaning against the glass case with one leg cocked behind her and her arms splayed outward, resting on her palms against the countertop. On an especially slow day she might lean over the case on her elbows—although this position is definitely not preferred by the management—and stare through the glass at the leather and silk gloves that lie on display like pristine, just-caught fish. The overhead lights reflect in the glass countertop and mingle with the gray and black of the gloves, resulting in a mother-of-pearl swirl that sometimes sends Mirabelle into a shallow hypnotic dream.

    Everyone is silent at Neiman's, as though it were a religious site, and Mirabelle always tries to quiet the tap-tap-tapping of her heels when she walks across the percussive marble floors. If you saw her, you would assume By her gait that she is in danger of slipping at any moment. However, this is the way Mirabelle walks all the time, even on the sure friction of a concrete sidewalk. She has simply never quite learned to walk or hold herself comfortably, which makes her come off as an attractive wallflower. For Mirabelle, the high point of working at a department store is that she gets to dress up to go to work, as the Neiman's dress codeencourages her to be a model of precision and style. Her problem, of course, is paying for the clothes that she favors, but one way or another, helped out by a generous employee discount and a knack for mixing and matching a recycled dress with a 50 percent off Armani sweater, she manages to dress well without straining her budget.

    Every day at lunchtime she walks around the corner into Beverly Hills to the Time Clock Café, which offers her a regular lunch at a nominal price. One sandwich, which always amounts to three dollars and seventy-five cents, a side salad, and a drink, and she can keep her tab just under her preferred six-dollar maximum, which can surge to nearly eight dollars if she opts for dessert. Sometimes, a man whose name she overheard once—Tom, she thinks it is—will eye her legs, which show off nicely as she sits at a wrought-iron table so shallow it forces her to angle them out into the aisle. Mirabelle, who never takes credit for her attractiveness, believes it is not she he is responding to but rather something independent of her, like the lovely line her fine blue skirt makes as it cuts diagonally across the white of her thigh.

    The rest of the day at Neiman's sees her leaning or bending or rearranging, with the occasional odd customer pulling her out of the afternoon's slow motion until 6 P.M. finally ticks over. She then closes the register and walks over to the elevator, her upper body rigid. She descends to the first floor and passes the glistening perfume counters, where the salesgirls stay a full half hour after closing to accommodate late buyers, and where by now, the various scents that have been sprayed throughout the day onto waiting customers have collected into strata in the department store air. So Mirabelle, at five-six, always smells Chanel number 5, while someone at five-two is always treated to the heavier Chanel number 19. This daily walk always reminds her that she works in the Siberia of Neiman's, the isolated, landlocked glove department, and she wonders when she will be moved around in the hierarchy to at least perfume, because there, in the energetic, populated worlds of cosmetics and aromatics, she can get that which she wants more than anything: someone to talk to.

    Depending on the time of year, Mirabelle's drive home offers either the sunny evening light of summer or the early darkness and halogen headlights of winter in Pacific standard time. She traverses Beverly Boulevard, the chameleon street with elegant furniture stores and restaurants on one end and Vietnamese shops selling mysterious packaged roots on the other. In fifteen miles, like a Monopoly game in reverse, this street dwindles in property value and ends at her second-story apartment in Silverlake, an artists' community that is always bordering on being dangerous but never quite succeeding. Some evenings, if the timing is right, she can climb the outdoor stairs to her walkup and catch L.A.'s most beautiful sight: a Pacific sunset cumulating over the spread of lights that flows from her front-door stoop to the sea. She then enters her apartment, which for no good reason doesn't have a window to the view, and the disappearing sun finally blackens everything outside, transforming her windows into mirrors.

    Mirabelle has two cats. One is normal, the other is a reclusive kitten who lives under a sofa and rarely comes out. Very rarely. Once a year. This gives Mirabelle the feeling that there is a mysterious stranger living in her apartment whom she never sees but who leaves evidence of his existence by subtly moving small, round objects from room to room. This description could easily apply to Mirabelle's few friends, who also leave evidence of their existence, in missed phone messages and rare get-togethers, and are also seldom seen. This is because they view her as an oddnik, and their failure to include her leaves her alone on many nights. She knows that she needs new friends but introductions are hard to come by when your natural state is shyness.

    Mirabelle replaces the absent friends with books and television mysteries of the PBS kind. The books are mostly nineteenth-century novels in which women are poisoned or are doing the poisoning. She does not read these books as a romantic lonely hearts turning pages in the isolation of her room, not at all. She is instead an educated spirit with a sense of irony. She loves the gloom of these period novels, especially as kitsch, but beneath it all she finds that a part of her identifies with all that darkness.

    There is something else, too: Mirabelle can draw. Her output is small in quantity and size. Only a few four-by-five-inch drawings are finished in a year, and they are infused with the eerie spirit of the mysteries she reads. She densely coats the paper with a black waxy crayon, covering everything except the image she wants to reveal, which appears to be floating up through the blackness. Her latest is a rendering of a crouching child charred stiff in the lava of Pompeii. Her drawing hand is sure, trained in the years she spent acquiring a master of fine arts degree at a California college while incurring thirty-nine thousand dollars of debt from student loans. This degree makes her a walking anomaly among the perfume girls and shoe clerks at Neiman's, whose highest accomplishments are that they were cute in high school. Rarely, but often enough to have a small collection of her own work, Mirabelle gets out the charcoals and pulls the kitchen lamp down low, near the hard surface of her breakfast table, and makes a drawing. It is then properly fixed and photographed and stowed away in a professional portfolio. These nights of drawing leave her exhausted, for they require the full concentration of her energy, and on those evenings she stumbles to bed and falls into a dead sleep.

    On a normal night, her routine is very simple, involving the application of lotion to her body while chattering to the visible kitten, with occasional high-voiced interjections to the assumed cat under the sofa. If there were a silent observer, Mirabelle would be seen as a carefree, happy girl who is preparing for a night on the town. But in reality, these activities are the physical manifestations of her stillness.

    Tonight, as the evening closes, Mirabelle slips into bed, says an audible good night to both cats, and shuts her eyes. Her hand clicks off the lamp next to her, and her head fills with ghosts. Now her mind can wander in any landscape it desires, and she makes a nightly ritual of these waking dreams. She sees herself standing on the edge of a tropical lagoon. A man comes up from behind her, wraps his arms around her, buries his face in her neck, and whispers, "don't move." The image generates a damp first molecule of wetness between her legs, and she presses her bladed hand between them, and falls asleep.

    In the morning, the dry food that had heen laid out in a bowl the night before is now gone, more evidence of the phantom cat. Mirabelle, sleepy eyed and still groggy, prepares her breakfast and takes her Serzone. The Serzone is a gift from God that frees her from the immobilizing depression that would otherwise surround her and seep into her body like a poisonous fog. The drug distances the depression from her, although it is never out of sight. It is also the third mood elevator that she has tried in as many years. The first two worked, and worked well for a while, then abruptly dropped her. There is always a struggle as the new drug, which for a while has to be blended with the old one, takes root in her brain and begins to work its mysterious chemistry.

    The depression she battles is not the newly acquired symptom of a young woman now living in Los Angeles on her own. It was first set in the bow in Vermont, where she grew up, and fired as a companion arrow that has traveled with her ever since. With the drug, she is generally able to corner it and keep it separate from her daily life. There are black stretches, however, when she is unable to move from her bed. She takes full advantage of the sick days that are built into her work allowances at Neiman's.

    In spite of her depression, Mirabelle likes to think of herself as humorous. She can, when the occasion calls. become a wisecracker and buoyant party girl. This mood, Mirabelle thinks, sometimes makes her the center of attention at parties and gatherings. The truth is that these episodes of gaiety merely raise her to normal, but for Mirabelle the feeling is so exceptional that she believes herself to be standing out. The power at these parties remains with the neurotically spirited women, who attract men whose need it is to tame them. Mirabelle attracts men of a different kind. They are shyer and more reticent. They look at her a long time before approaching, and when they do find something about her that they want, it is something simple within her.


AT TWENTY-SIX, JEREMY IS two years younger than Mirabelle. He grew up in the slacker-based L.A. high school milieu, where aspiration languishes and the lucky ones get kick-started in their first year of college by an enthused and charismatic professor. He had no college dreams and hence no proximity to the challenge of new faces and ideas—he currently stencils logos on amplifiers for a living—and Jeremy's life after high school slid sideways on an imperceptibly canted icy slope, angling away from center. It is appropriate that he and Mirabelle met at a Laundromat, the least noir dating arena on earth. Their first encounter began with "hey," and ended with a loose "see ya," as Mirabelle stood amidst her damp underwear and jogging shorts.

    Jeremy took Mirabelle on approximately two and a half dates. The half date was actually a full evening, but was so vaporous that Mirabelle had trouble counting it as a full unit. On the first, which consisted mainly of shuffling around a shopping mall while Jeremy tried to graze her ass with the back of his hand, he split the dinner bill with her and then, when she suggested they actually go inside the movie theatre whose new neon front so transfixed Jeremy, made her pay for her own ticket. Mirabelle could not afford to go out again under the same circumstances, and there was no simple way to explain this to him. The conversation at dinner hadn't been successful either; it bore the marks of an old married couple who had very little left to say to each other. After walking her to her door, he gave her his phone number, in a peculiar reversal of dating procedure. She might have considered kissing him, even after the horrible first date, but he just didn't seem to know what to do. However, Jeremy does have one outstanding quality. He likes her. And this quality in a person makes them infinitely interesting to the person who is being liked. At the end of their first date, as she stepped inside her apartment and her hand was delivering the door to its jamb, there was a slight pause, and they exchanged a quick look of inexplicable intent. Once inside, instead of forever losing his number in her coat pocket, she absentmindedly stuck it under her phone.

    Six days after their first date, which had cut Mirabelle's net worth by 20 percent, she runs into Jeremy again at the Laundromat. He waves at her, gives her the thumbs-up sign, then watches her as she loads clothes into the machines. He seems unable to move, but speaks just loudly enough for his voice to carry over twelve clanking washing machines, "Did you watch the game last night?" Mirabelle is shocked when she later learns that Jeremy considers this their second date. This fact comes out when at one abortive get-together, Jeremy invokes the "third date" rule, believing he should be received at second base. Mirabelle is not fooled by any such third date rule, and she explains to Jeremy that she cannot conceive of any way their Laundromat encounter, or any encounter involving the thumbs-up sign, can be considered a date.

    This third date is also problematic because after warning Jeremy that she is not going to pay half of its cost, she is taken to a bowling alley and forced to pay for her own rental shoes. Jeremy explains that bowling shoes are an article of clothing, and he certainly can't be expected to pay for what she wears on a date. If only Jeremy's logical mind could be applied to astrophysics and not rental shoes, he would now be a honcho at NASA. He does cough up for dinner and several games, even though he uses discount coupons clipped from the newspaper to help pay for it all. Finally, Mirabelle suggests that if they have future dates, he should take her phone number, call her, and they could do free things. Mirabelle knows, and she lets this be unspoken, that all free things require conversation. Sitting in a darkened movie theatre requires absolutely no conversation at all, whereas a free date, like a walk down Hollywood Boulevard in the busy evening, requires comments, chatter, observations, and with luck, wit. She worries that since they have only exchanged perhaps two dozen words between them, these free dates will be horrible. She is still willing to go out with him, however, until something less horrible comes along.

    Jeremy's attraction to Mirabelle arises from her passing similarity to someone he had fallen in love with in his preadolescent life. This person is Popeye's girlfriend, Olive Oyl, whom he used to swoon over in a few antique comic books lent to him by his uncle. And yes, Mirabelle does bear some similarity, but only after the suggestion is made. You would not walk into a room, see her for the first time, and think Olive Oyl. However, once the idea is proposed, one's response might be a long, slow, "ahhhh ... yes." She has a long thin body, two small dark eyes, and a small red mouth. She also dresses like Olive Oyl, in fitted clothes—never a fluffy, girly dress—and she holds herself like Ms. Oyl, too, in a kind of jangle. Olive Oyl has no breasts, but Mirabelle does, though the way she carries herself, with her shoulders folded, in clothing that never accentuates her curves, makes her appear flat. All this in no way discounts her attractiveness. Mirabelle is attractive; it's just that she is never the first or second girl chosen. But to Jeremy, Mirabelle's most striking resemblance to Olive Oyl is her translucent skin. It recalls for him the pale skin of the cartoon figure, which was actually the creamy paper showing from underneath.

    Jeremy's thought process is so thin that he has the happy consequence of always ending up doing exactly what he wants to do at all times. He never complicates a desire by overthinking it, unlike Mirabelle, who spins a cocoon around an idea until it is immobile. His view of the world is one that keeps his blood pressure low, sweeping the cholesterol from his relaxed, freeway-sized arteries. Everyone knows he is going to live till age ninety, although the question that goes begging is, "for what?"

    Jeremy and Mirabelle are separated by a hundred million miles of vacuum space. He falls asleep at night in blissful ignorance. She, subtly doped on her prescription, time-travels through the terrain of her unconscious until she is overcome by sleep. He knows only what is right in front of him; she is aware of every incoming sensation that glances obliquely against her soft, fragile core. At this stage of their lives, in true and total fact, the only thing they have in common is a Laundromat.

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