(Correction: Because of a reporting error, a book review of ''The Booster" yesterday gave the wrong first name for the novel's main character. The character is named Jillian.)
In American culture, shoplifting holds a slippery place somewhere between a crime and a rite of passage. In the classic "Breakfast at Tiffany's," Audrey Hepburn and George Peppard created an indelible screen image as they strolled out of a Manhattan shop wearing purloined Halloween masks. Did you root for them, or the store owner?
"The Booster," Jennifer Solow's debut novel, is all about the pull between daring adventure and ethical behavior, not to mention the need to work out the personal issues that drive these.
Its heroine, Jillian Siegel, is a 29-year-old wunderkind at the best ad agency in Manhattan. (This gets a bit confusing, since Solow shares the same first letter as her heroine and has worked in advertising.)
The fictional Jillian fits the mold of many recent guilty-pleasure-novel heroines. This woman is invariably a high flier in some business in New York or London. She's single, thirtyish, obsessed with exclusive clothes and trendy eating spots, and can drop more names than a Bergdorf blonde. She is nearly hopeless at personal connection, usually as a result of her parents' divorce and her mother's overbearing personality.
Jillian Siegel is all of the above, plus a member of a fabulously wealthy and rather dysfunctional retail family. She is also a shoplifter.
When life's pressures close in, Jillian needs to boost something (a scarf, a blouse, some lip balm) to feel better. "Just the act of closing a fist and releasing it again into a pocket . . . knowing the thing, the coveted thing, is now owned . . . is enough."
Lately, she needs to feel better at least once a day. Her boss fires her after hating a presentation she had thought would land her a huge account. Her beloved uncle, one of the few sane people in her family, is dying. Her mother continues to drive her crazy. And Jillian is just not sure how she feels about her boyfriend, Alex. Worse, Alex is having doubts about her.
The only time Jillian feels in command is when she's in the scented aisles of a store, stopping at lighted glass counters, touching beautiful dresses or picking up hand-stitched gloves. She repeats a good luck mantra -- "It is mine" -- as she decides which items will leave with her, tucked into her tailored sleeve or nestled in her fabulous purse.
At first Jillian seems less a person than a jangled collection of magazine ads. Solow sometimes packs a page with designer names rather than actually setting a scene; but slowly some very believable dialogue fights its way through the price tags. Jillian skitters between feeling rejected and feeling adored, with never a rest stop on a calm middle ground.
But shoplifting is more than just a release valve; it's a real crime, with real consequences. Yet unlike a bank robber, who enters a bank with money in mind, a shoplifter often has some other goal than building wealth. It can be the thrill of success, with the pilfered object the trophy for the deed.
Law-abiding citizens wonder why someone would risk humiliation for mere trifles, especially when it's a very public event, such as Winona Ryder's department store episode a few years ago, or the very recent theft charges against Bush administration official Claude Allen.
Like them, Jillian boosts one item too many. She lands in a holding cell, where she meets Shelley, a young woman who shares Jillian's passion for stealing. In most other ways, they are opposites. Jillian pops Ativan to take the edge off her constant anxiety, while Shelley likes anxiety ("It keeps me alert"). Together they form a shoplifting team. Before long Shelley kicks it up a notch by introducing Jillian to an international ring of shoplifters. This moves the game from an afternoon's diversion to life-altering danger -- all while Jillian is trying to sort out her heart and her career.
Like any good heroine, Jillian must confront herself. She accomplishes this in an entertaining and frequently surprising way. With "The Booster," Jennifer Solow has neatly dropped her literary beach towel near the spot of sand occupied by Kate White and Sophie Kinsella. There's hope in this story, and beach book season is just around the corner.
The Booster, By Jennifer Solow, Atria, 320 pp., $24