The XX Factor

Are Teacups the Next Chick-Lit Cover Cliché?

The cover of Nancy Jensen’s The Sisters (St. Martin’s Press).

Nancy Jensen’s novel The Sisters, which came out earlier this month, is a family saga set in Kentucky that’s already drawn comparisons to The Help. It’s also one of several recent books geared toward women that prominently feature teacups on their covers—in this case, two broken flower-painted china cups, no doubt overflowing with symbolism.

The Sisters cover comes on the heels of that of last winter’s young-adult thriller Slice of Cherry by Dia Reeves (which highlights three pastel teacups dripping blood) and augurs that of the upcoming sentimental novel One Moment, One Morning by Sarah Rayner (which shows a stack of teacups being splashed with water). That’s not even to mention two Australian chick-lit releases from last year with teacup-centered jackets (Melanie La’Brooy’s Bittersweet and Christine Darcas’ Spinning Out). Or a handful of recent additions to the canon illustrated by coffee mugs or ambiguous hot-beverage receptacles (Teresa Medeiros’s Goodnight Tweetheart, Marilyn Brant’s Friday Mornings at Nine, and Sue Margolis’s Perfect Blend).

What accounts for the sudden influx of teacup-themed chick-lit covers? Could the teacup soon overtake the cupcake and the high-heeled shoe as the reigning chick-lit cover cliché?

Not including a couple of books from the mid-aughts whose titles actually contained the word “tea,” the teacup cover-design trend doesn’t appear to have caught on until last year—and that timing is telling. In today’s economy, the urban affluence suggested by the martini glass and the Jimmy Choo feels distasteful and out of touch. Similarly, the cupcake (a ludicrously infantilizing trend that is finally, blessedly on its way out) evokes a Sex and the City-era frivolity that much of today’s chick-lit readership simply can’t be bothered to indulge in anymore.

Tea, on the other hand, is a pleasure for the 99 percent: practical, demure, and classic. You don’t need money, connections, or a big-city lifestyle to indulge in tea; you just need a teabag, hot water, and a cup to drink it out of. And teacups, conveniently, with their gentle curves and delicate color schemes, are just girly enough to make it absolutely clear which half of the gender spectrum this recent crop of books is intended for.

There’s no telling how long the teacup trend will last. Maybe the recession will end soon enough to send chick-lit heroines tottering back to their designer dresses and fancy cocktails. Maybe publishers will stop defining readers by their gender and genders by their superficial characteristics. (Don’t hold your breath.) Until then, the teacup is it: femininity distilled for the post-Great Recession era.