The themes in Shopgirl echo its social concerns. The guiding theme is revealed in a phrase Mirabelle overhears: "just remember, darling, it is pain that changes our lives." One avenue for pain lies in modernday isolation and its companions, depression and loneliness. Martin shows the effects of Los Angeles-style superficiality on lonely people. He describes Beverly Hills as a place where "young men, searching for young women who remind them of their face-lifted mothers, are stranded and forlorn in a sea of natural-looking twenty-five year olds." In this world, superficiality replaces genuine human interactions.
Mirabelle sees the emptiness in others. Describing the salesgirls in the cosmetics department where she works, she disdains their application of lipstick, comparing them to "Man Ray's disembodied lips floating over a landscape of boxed perfumes." Mirabelle's isolation amplifies her own awkwardness, too. At an art opening, she drinks a glass of wine while she waits for her friends to show up, ordering the wine not because she wants a drink, but only so she will have something to do with her hands while she stands there.
Mirabelle is careful to schedule weekend events, understanding that the loneliness can be unbearable if she stays there alone for forty-eight hours. Even after she meets Ray, Mirabelle knows enough to hate holidays. Although she plans to go home to Vermont for Christmas, she worries about what she will do on Thanksgiving, which she knows can be "a kind of death sentence" if spent alone. However, the insular existence of Mirabelle and Ray do not intersect. As she thinks that Ray will be out of town, she is not expecting his call, which comes late on what has been a lonely Thanksgiving Day. He tells her he has decided to come back to Los Angeles, without explanation. Neither Ray nor Mirabelle can stand being alone.
Mirabelle's isolation is compounded by her depression, "bleak stretches . . . when she is unable to move from her bed." She takes antidepressant medication, but although "the drug distances the depression from her . . . [her depression] is never out of sight." The bleakness of her life, the boredom of working in a department store, and her lack of connection with others most of her life is sad, as is Ray's insular existence. However, it takes the pain of a failed romantic relationship to bring them the insight they need to develop as human beings.
Steve Martin's Los Angeles is a place where it might be a miracle if two people who are suited for each other actually recognize it. The universal struggle of people in romantic relationships in this lonely place is the point that connects Shopgirl's main characters. Mirabelle's relationship with Ray Porter ultimately is doomed by his consuming need for serial, random conquests and her obsessive need to be with someone exclusively—both the results of loneliness. However, even as this becomes obvious to both of them, they find it hard to end the relationship, be alone again, and feel even more isolated than before.
Before Mirabelle met Ray, she decided to sleep with Jeremy, who has few redeeming qualities. However, as Mirabelle finds herself...
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