With its bright covers and formulaic plots, fiction aimed at women is hot

During the summer, the quest for enlightening, Pulitzer Prize-winning fiction flies out the window and our penchant for tasty beach reading kicks in.

With candy-colored covers, curlicue lettering and content often as airy as whipped cream, chick lit is an easy-to-inhale guilty pleasure – in the tub, on a plane or lazing on some far-flung beach in Bora Bora.

“Some of my friends, especially guys, make fun of me for reading it,” says Anne-Marie Balzano, 34, assistant principal at Gunn High School in Palo Alto, Calif. “But I enjoy the characters and I enjoy the stories. It’s a little bit of escapism.”

Balzano first got hooked on chick lit – fiction that usually follows a certain formula written to appeal to women – after reading the Helen Fielding novel “Bridget Jones’s Diary.” Since then, she has collected about two dozen titles that she trades with a group of girlfriends in a casual book reading circle.

“The first-person narrative draws you in,” Balzano says. “Bridget’s easy to relate to. Women always have issues about their bodies or being in a relationship. That immediately connects you to her. Now, I have an entire shelf of these books that the men in my life refer to as ‘the pink section.”‘

Scorned as 21st-century romance novels and praised as comic entertainment, chick lit has emerged as one of the hottest-selling genres among female readers in recent years.

“These books are so popular because characters are going through things that normal women go through,” says Rian Montgomery, an avid fan who two years ago launched the Web site www.chicklitbooks.com. “Situations with boyfriends, jobs, motherhood and marriage. The characters are relatable and realistic.”

Chick lit’s popularity is also reflected on screen with movies such as “Bridget Jones’s Diary” and in the pages of women’s magazines. Excerpts appear in Glamour and Cosmopolitan, and “must read” lists and reviews tout the genre in other publications. Most of the plot lines are tinged with humor and feature a modern female protagonist. Usually written by women, they’re for women in their 20s through their 60s.

The novels regularly populate bestseller lists and have mushroomed into a full-fledged literary category with subgenres including mystery, paranormal, teen and Christian. Major book publishers have certainly caught on, establishing their own chick-lit imprints to market the books. Harlequin, for example, has Red Dress Ink for the reader in her 20s or early 30s and a more recent line, Next, for the more mature female reader over 35.

“These books aren’t about saving the world,” says Margaret Marbury, executive editor of Red Dress Ink. “But reading them is like holding up a mirror. They’re an immediate look at here and now. It’s a way of looking at ourselves in an entertaining way, with a spark of wisdom and wit about how to deal with all of life’s curveballs.”

Try these titles

Recommended by Sessalee Hensley, Barnes & Noble’s fiction buyer:

¢ “The Wonder Spot,” by Melissa Bank, author of “Girls Guide to Hunting and Fishing,” Viking Adult, 336 pages, $24.95.

¢ “Love (at) First Sight,” by Jane Moore, author of “EX-Files” and “Fourplay,” Broadway, 368 pages, $19.95.

¢ “Man Camp: A Novel,” by Adrienne Brodeur, her first novel about what to do if the man you’ve set your sights on isn’t exactly the Sam Shepard type, Random House, 224 pages, $21.95.

¢ “The Undomestic Goddess,” by Sophie Kinsella, probably the biggest name in the genre – she wrote the Shopaholic series, The Dial Press, 384 pages, $23.

¢ “With or Without You,” by Carole Matthews, Red Dress Ink, $17.95, available in August.

¢ “Beyond the Blonde,” by Kathleen Flynn-Hui, a story about a New York City hairdresser and her clients’ secrets, Warner Books, 288 pages, $21.95, available in September.

¢ “Adored,” by Tilly Bagshawe, she harks back to the old glamour novelists like Judith Krantz, Shirley Booth and Jackie Collins, but with 20-something characters and plots straight out of Hollywood, Warner Books, 560 pages, $23.95.