The result is an often laugh-out-loud odyssey, with embarrassing incidents and downright disasters aplenty. But the real triumph of this book is the way it transcends its "Bridget Jones gazes at her navel" premise to ask searching questions both about the purported effectiveness of self-help in the light of a multi-million-dollar personal development industry; and about how we can really best find contentment.
The discordant counterpoint to her chirpy quest – a startling number of glasses of wine, friends brushed off when their ‘negativity’ threatens her – is brought affectingly to the fore. How much of this is authentic and how much of it has been constructed to serve her tale? The author’s note promises that every incident is ‘real and true’, but also says that the friend characters are composites and that some events have been reordered in the interests of her narrative... It’s perverse that Help Me! is classed as non-fiction while, say, Olivia Laing’s Crudo and Joanna Walsh’s Break.up . . . go in the fiction section. It’s even more perverse that Help Me!, with its chipper packaging, is a more moving book than either of them. Help Me! is not a book to change your life . . . and it doesn’t get to the core of why these authors urge us to change our unsatisfactory selves and not the world. But regardless of how ‘real’ it is, it’s a compelling story of crack-up and recovery.
If these plot beats seem a little too perfect for the comedy drama this book so plainly longs to become, and for which rights have already been sold, I’m not sure I mind very much. It will be fun to watch — especially if Power’s splendidly curmudgeonly Irish mother, deeply sceptical about her daughter’s book project (‘Please tell me you don’t use the word “journey” in it’) is well cast.
Perhaps the greatest surprise of Power’s Help Me! is the revelation that, 20 years later, these are still among the books that worried thirtysomethings turn to for advice about how to change – for which read “improve” or even “rescue” – their love life, bank balance or body mass index... Help Me! . . . is a series of anecdotes about spending a “rollercoaster” year in which “every bit of me was turned inside out” (Power is not immune from using the cliches of the books she is trying to critique) . . . What disrupts her plan to humiliate herself at Wembley stadium is the sudden death of her uncle at 59, a family catastrophe that requires her to fly to Ireland to be at her mother’s side. And, in fact, it is these lightning bolts of real-life experience, including what sounds like a painful breakdown three-quarters of the way through her experiment, that stops Help Me! floating off into inconsequence... Still, the book retains a certain generic weightlessness... What’s missing, ultimately, is that sharp crack of insight that tells us what it feels like to be youngish and female here, now, at this very moment in history.
Those allergic to me, me, me millennial moaning might want to steer clear, as Help Me! is, inevitably, rather self-indulgent. However, there are plenty of reasons to like Power, not least because of her frequent awareness that she’s “getting lost up my own navel-gazing behind”... The book does teeter towards the gimmicky. In order to “feel the fear”, Power jumps out of a plane and poses naked for a life-drawing class. However, by the time she confronts the root of why she has no savings and is terrified of the opposite sex, she has won the reader over... She writes powerfully about her damaging habit of “constant self-examination in which we are always found wanting”. Any woman familiar with looking in the mirror and instinctively criticising her appearance will want to hug her for her honesty.