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FIELDING'S FIRST READS LIKE JONES WITH AN EDGE

Cause Celeb

By Helen Fielding

Viking Penguin

352 pages, $24.95

Good news, all you "Bridget Jones" fans. Very good news. "Cause Celeb" -- the novel Helen Fielding wrote before creating the most endearing diarist ever to tally her caloric intake -- has hit the stands. Published in 1994, it was released only in Europe until now.

However, before you cheer "Hurrah!" consider yourself forewarned. Anticipating the page-to-page giggle fits of "Bridget Jones's Diary" or its sequel may leave you more disappointed than a shag-free week.

Simply put, "Cause Celeb" is not that kind of book. Though Fielding seasons it with the same brand of humor that made best sellers of her subsequent efforts, an edge creeps into her prose that you won't find anywhere in the Jones chronicles. Tackling such ripe-for-ridicule subjects as celebrity culture and charitable giving, she shows a knack for skewering satire that's ultimately as satisfying as her straight-ahead comedy.

The protagonist in "Cause Celeb" could be Bridget's more serious half-sister. She is also seeking Mr. Right, but she doesn't enlist the advice of self-help books in her search. And while she finds herself into the occasional daft predicament, more often she faces crises that can't be righted with a few alcohol units.

And get this:

She uses pronouns.

A 20-something publicist, Rosie Richardson (Gaaaah! Hate the name) spends her evenings hanging out at posh restaurants with London's glitterati. It's an elite clique, to be sure, and Rosie's allowed entry because of her boyfriend, an alternately harsh and charming TV producer named Oliver Marchant. Oliver is the type of guy who tells Rosie he needs more space one day and proposes marriage the next. When he tells her that he's fallen in love with her, but he's not in love with her, he fully expects she'll understand the difference.

Weary of the emotional seesaw, Rosie finally ditches her beau. Without her celebrity pals to distract her, she's left to rethink her place in the world. Whereas Bridget might have found comfort in her girlfriends and a box of Milk Tray chocolates, Rosie takes more drastic measures: Leaving behind the land of air kisses and awards shows, she accepts a job at a sub-Saharan refugee camp.

"There are people, particularly in times of prominent famine, who become almost reverent when you say you are an aid worker," she says. "Actually, the reason I first got interested in Africa was because I fancied someone. That's about how saintly I am, if you really want to know. If Oliver had asked me out that night in the Albert Hall, I'd probably never have heard of Nambula."

Four years later, Rosie remains at the settlement camp overseeing food, medical supplies and a not-surprisingly food-obsessed staff. Her grueling job satisfies her; Oliver has drifted from her thoughts. She's starting to fall for O'Rourke, the camp's new doctor, whom she had originally dismissed because of his white socks. (Remember how Darcy's argyle sweater turned off Bridget?)

Then famine strikes in a nearby province, and it seems certain that a horde of starving refugees is about to descend on the camp. Aid agencies won't deliver food until rumors of the crisis can be verified. Running out of time, Rosie realizes she has one option left in her arsenal: She can appeal to her famous former friends.

Once back in London, she has to fight her battle on numerous fronts. Editors refuse to go big with the story because they consider African famine old news. "You know how these things go," one newspaper type tells her. "All eyes are on Eastern Europe and the Gulf now." Finally, Rosie convinces Oliver to stage a star-studded television benefit in Nambula.

It's in these chapters that Fielding is at her biting best, letting neither the celebrities who respond to misery nor the media that cover it off the hook. Photographers keep their lens pointed on the most wasted refugees, waiting for one to die. When it looks as if the crisis has been averted, one of the TV bigwigs declares the trip "a bloody disaster."

If Fielding writes like she's covering familiar terrain, there's good reason. A former BBC television producer, she produced documentaries in Sudan, Ethiopia and Mozambique for Comic Relief. She has seen the ravages of famine. She knows the problem doesn't end once the camera cuts away or the rich and famous move on to a trendier charity.

A lesser writer could not have swung so acrobatically between poles of comedy and drama. That Fielding manages to end "Cause Celeb" on a note that's as cautiously optimistic about the future of the refugees as it is romantically mushy about Rosie's love life only reinforces her dexterity.

OK. Now, if you want, you can shout, "Hurrah!"

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