by Thomas Kaplan-Maxfield
The growing popularity of "chick-lit"—the cute term for the emerging genre of female-centric fiction—tends to pit its harsh critics against a flock of eager readers. The detractors, many of them feminists, charge that such works exploit the worst stereotypes of modern-day women, depicting them as interested in nothing more than shopping, losing weight, or finding the right man. Accusations center around the books' simplistic plots, treacly love scenarios and vapid leading characters.
Memoirs of a Shape-Shifter offers a variation on chick-lit: a literary novel, written by a man, with a fully configured female lead character. In giving centrality to a female protagonist and refreshing attention to women's inner lives, its plot is an answer to the frequent criticism that modern novels—even those written by women—do not do justice to the real challenges faced by women today. Yet this particular male author twists the prevailing wisdom whether called "male" or "female," bringing a darker perspective to common fairy tale notions of love.
In taking up the difficulties of love experienced by real women in contemporary America, Kaplan-Maxfield vividly penetrates the complex soul of a modern everywoman in protagonist Nikki Helmik. Provocatively enacting the mystery at the heart of the book—the power of words to make magic—he stands our conventional understanding of power on its head.