As you may recall, I went a little crazy for Katie Fforde in June. I managed to read/reread 9 of her novels in less than four weeks, on top of all my other reading, which, let me be clear from the beginning, was not necessarily my cleverest plan. With so many books that are so similar read so close together, it can be a bit overwhelming and, frankly, exhausting. And yet I could not help myself.
Katie Fforde writes wonderful escapist fiction. Yes, it is formulaic, yes, the male characters in particular can be so poorly constructed that they’re barely present, and yes, most of the time the plots are madly unrealistic. But all that is completely fine because this is escapist fiction and that is exactly what I want from this kind of book. There are times when all you want is a novel that will whisk you away for a couple of hours, the kind that is easy to read, makes you smile, and where your heroine is able to completely turn her life around in 300 to 400 pages of well-spaced type.
I started with Love Letters and, perhaps because of its bookish focus, it was one of my favourites, though mostly for its minor characters and commentary on the publishing industry. The heroine, Laura Horsley, had been contentedly working at a small bookshop, which, as the novel opens, is about to close. When she takes on the daunting task of helping to organize a literary festival, she is also faced with tracking down an elusive Irish author and convincing him to attend in order to secure the support of a wealthy donor. It features the standard evolution of a Fforde heroine: she changes her boring life into something she’s really excited about, landing the perfect job, as well as the guy. Careers are a main focus in Fforde’s novel and each heroine’s search for a job that she is engaged by and passionate about often takes up more time that the romantic subplot, though often the two are intertwined.
Laura is rather forgettable but the first pages detailing her bookish habits made her instantly recognizable as a fellow bibliophile and I would have found it difficult after reading them to have actively disliked her:
Laura read a lot. She lived alone in a tiny bedsit and her television was so small and snowy she didn’t watch it much. But she read all the time: at bedtime, while she ate, while she coojed, while she dressed and while she brushed her teeth. She would have read in the shower if she could have worked out a method that wouldn’t completely ruin the book. In the same way she could read anywhere, she could read anything and if it were good, enjoy it.
But the best thing(s) by far about Love Letters are the conversations that happen at the literary festival, specifically the ones between the snobbish literary fiction authors and the cheerful, significantly wealthier, women’s fiction authors. They are cozy and friendly and don’t particularly care that their work isn’t great art, just that it is being read and that they’re getting the very welcome cheques from the publishers. I adored their attitude.
A Perfect Proposal replaces career fantasies with real estate fantasies, which I am usually all for, but, despite becoming rather fond of the protagonist Sophie, this book did not work for me. There was a lot going on. Sophie’s academic family ships their embarrassingly domestic daughter off to care for a great-uncle for a few weeks, in hopes of extracting some money from him. After that episode, Sophie jets off to work as an au pair in New York but, after that falls through, ends up meeting and befriending a wildly wealthy woman at an art gallery opening. The old woman has a grandson, of course, who is both suspicious of Sophie and, at the same time, eager for her to pose as his fiancé to throw off fortune hunters. And that’s just the first third of the book. A lot, a lot, a lot of stuff happens, occasionally for no reason, and it makes for a bit of a strange reading experience. Enjoyable, but strange.
Flora’s Lot was madly fun. Who knew I would find auction houses so engaging? It has definite shades of Georgette Heyer’s The Grand Sophy, my favourite Heyer, which perhaps explains part of its appeal. Flora Stanza, having inherited half of the family antiques business, has moved down to the country, determined to learn all she can from her cousin Charles and become a true partner in the company. Charles and his fiancée Annabelle are less than pleased by her arrival and by her determination not to sell them her half of the company. There’s a cottage, a pregnant cat, a hippy drifter, a village choir…oh so many details that made this a really fun read. And the romantic climax, which happens with dizzying speed, is probably my favourite in all of Fforde’s works.
Highland Fling, which predictably takes place in Scotland, is instantly forgettable, as is Stately Pursuits (though I did rather enjoy it, since I’m a sucker for any story involving renovations and villagers banding together). Wedding Season, rather than focusing on a single heroine, follows the stories of three women: a wedding planner, a hair stylist, and a dressmaker. I liked the three-pronged approach but was never particularly won over by any of the heroines and there is a particularly vile epilogue.
I can count on one finger the number of books I have read about cleaners. That would be The Rose Revived. Like Wedding Season, it follows three women rather than a single protagonist, who meet when they answer an ad for cleaning ladies and, after being cheated by their slimeball employer, start up their own cleaning service. None of them are particularly passionate about cleaning, thank goodness (I think I might have difficulties warming to anyone who get excited about scouring or bleaching). Harriet longs to be an artist, Sally is an actress constantly in search of work and May…well, she’s not quite sure. May’s evolution over the course of the novel is by far the most satisfying, as she emerges as a competent organizer and coordinator, and her love-interest, the lawyer Hugh, is definitely my type of hero.
Life Skills was where my enthusiasm for Fforde started to wan and, frankly, I think we should all be a little impressed that it took this long. Clearly, I have a high tolerance for repetition (as well as no sense whatsoever when it comes to balancing my reading). I don’t know whether it was my failing interest in light fiction or the novel itself but I found the heroine, Julia, to be particularly unsympathetic. Abandoning her job and her lackluster fiancé, Julia goes to work as the cook on a pair of hotel boats. I really, really hate characters who run away from their problems rather than face them, which is what Julia does so enthusiastically here. Fforde loves to write about narrowboats (May in The Rose Revived lived on one and they also feature prominently in Going Dutch, which I read several years ago) and I do love reading about locks and life on the canals but even that does not make up for a frustrating heroine.
Finally, we come to Artistic License where I was delighted to discover a likeable, relatable heroine. I had almost despaired of even encountering one again but Thea Orville makes sense right from the first page to the last. Her love interest Ben, on the other hand, is probably supposed to be mysterious but actually just comes across as a bit of a jerk. But he does like puppies and his son is very sweet, so we’ll give him the benefit of the doubt.
As a novel about a woman getting her life back on track, I think Artistic License absolutely succeeds. After leaving a career as a photo journalist, Thea has been running a boarding house for university students and working the odd shift at a pub to bring in some cash, all without any particular enthusiasm. But when she meets artist Rory on vacation in France and subsequently visits him at his home in Ireland and sees his work, her passion for art is reawakened and she sets to opening up her own gallery. Rory is entirely delightful as the charming, feckless artist – entirely unthreatening but wholly entertaining. If only Ben had proved as engaging.
That’s probably more than you ever wanted to know about Katie Fforde’s books, isn’t it? I did have fun reading them (some more than others) and I think it is awfully unfair that entertaining, escapist books like this don’t get reviewed as consistently as more serious but infinitely less enjoyable novels. Escapist books – comfort reads – are an important part of my reading diet and while Fforde may rank behind my absolute favourite comfort authors (Georgette Heyer and Eva Ibbotson are certainly at the top of the list) she is dependable, which is a particularly admirable trait.
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