Eric Garcia's anti-Bridget goes to extremes in her search for the perfect mate Ever since Helen Fielding unlocked Bridget Jones's Diary, the sheer number of similar modern-day-Cinderella tales has all but bowed the bookshelves. Known collectively by the politically retro moniker chick lit, these Prada-wearing parables typically transform Cindi-with-an-i into a struggling junior executive, Prince Charming into her gruff but hunky boss, the pumpkin carriage into a stretch Benz and the various woodland creatures into leggy, man-hungry "Sex and the City" sirens.

Los Angeles mischief-maker Eric Garcia (Matchstick Men, the Anonymous Rex series) has been stalking the chick-lit phenomenon for several years from the fringes of Hollywood, waiting to pounce metaphorically speaking, of course.

"The theme of so many of these chick-lit books seems to be, I am this woman who deserves something great and here are these men who are . . . good, not great. They're not what I want them to be but. . . . And they tend to spend the next 300 pages of the book or 90 minutes of the movie sort of whining about it. I'm like, that's just not a strong character. Who wants to hear somebody whine for that long? So I thought, what would a stronger-willed character do?" The wickedly funny answer lies in Cassandra French's Finishing School for Boys, Garcia's darkly comic chick-lit parody that manages in its own twisted way to remain deadly true to the form, right down to the happy, albeit happily warped, ending.

Cassie French is a 29-year-old business lawyer for a Hollywood studio with the requisite wacky mom, lecherous boss and two beautiful best friends: a skeletally thin supermodel and a studio exec who is sleeping with her shrink. What they don't know is that Cassie has three handsome young bachelors drugged and handcuffed to cots in her basement, where she instructs them in the finer things in life, and occasionally has sex with them.

"To some degree, it touches on every guy's fear that women want to change us; ÔMan, if I get married, she's going to want to change me,' " says Garcia. "And this certainly is a woman who wants to change her men. For the better. She's just trying to help. She is an empowered woman, thanks to chloroform and heroin and whatever else she uses. It just makes them that much more receptive. And that's how she sees it." Garcia's well-paced and trenchantly funny tale perfectly skewers the American makeover craze. "There is such a fascination in society today with the makeover, the idea that you can take something that is in a raw form and turn it into this little butterfly, this whole chrysalis thing going on. Just look at TV. "The Swan," OK? It's just interesting to me that there are people willing to go to these lengths for such a surface thing." Cassie, to her credit, is trying to change her students from the inside, more along the lines of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.

"That's a perfect example of a show where they take someone's life who doesn't really get it and teach them to get it. Of course, the Queer Eye guys don't go far enough because they only have three days and Cassie has months. That's not their fault; they're on a tight schedule. What they do to these guys in a few days Cassie just takes a little longer and really makes sure that the training is imbedded in them." Garcia has always had a keen eye for a premise. His funny, twisted fiction noir series, which began with his 1999 debut Anonymous Rex, postulates that dinosaurs still live among us, genetically downsized and disguised in Latex suits to blend into society. His gumshoe hero, Vincent Rubio, is Sam Spade with a basil habit. You don't posit something that outrageous unless, like Garcia, you have both a runaway fire hose of satirical observations and the chutzpa to use it irresponsibly.

"With the dinosaur books, after the first 20 pages you kind of forget they're dinosaurs and just sort of go with the flow," he says. "I'm getting similar responses to Cassie where, after the first little bit you start to forget that she's doing these incredibly illegal and amoral things and you just go with it because you understand where she's coming from." Part of what makes Cassandra French so entertaining is that Garcia lures us to sympathize with Cassie despite ourselves. After all, isn't a world with fewer mismatched plaids worth a little temporary incarceration? Garcia endured a checkout-line ordeal to bone up on scores of chick-lit titles. "I bought a few at stores and got a lot of looks: ÔLet's see, The Nanny Diaries and Shopaholic and Apocalipstick suuuure these are for your wife.' I resorted to ordering them online, like porn, because I was slightly embarrassed. I had to read all this stuff to get these conventions down straight. I couldn't satirize something that I didn't have down cold; it wouldn't ring true." Because Cassandra French hits bookstores just weeks after his third Vincent Rubio adventure, Hot and Sweaty Rex, Garcia finds himself in the odd position of reading from both during his upcoming book tour. That should be child's play for Garcia, the king of fast-forward creativity; he's got 14 projects under way, including the next Vincent Rubio (Cheap and Meaningless Rex), a dark sci-fi novel called The Repossession Mambo, and the upcoming Anonymous Rex TV series on the Sci Fi Channel starring newcomer Sam Trammel as Vincent and a supporting cast that includes Daniel Baldwin, Faye Dunaway and Isaac "Shaft" Hayes.

Still, even a promotional collision between his amateur dominatrix and his Jurassic P.I. is bound to fuel some wicked inventiveness from Garcia.

"Wouldn't Vincent and Cassandra be a good couple?" he wonders. "Now there's a crossover book; I'll have Vincent and Cassandra date! It would be kind of odd. But I don't want to start cannibalizing myself just yet; I've only got five books. Wait until I'm completely creatively bankrupt." Jay MacDonald leavens his innate guyness with viewings of HGTV.

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