Now, when I said that I’ve had no time to read recently, I assume we all understood that was an exaggeration. Yes? Because not reading would be like not eating or not sleeping; it would be impossible and very dangerous to my general well-being. But it has been an unsatisfying sort of reading, where pages are gobbled up over breakfast at 5:30 in the morning and chapters sped through during my bus ride to and from work (my e-reader has been my best friend lately).
The best sort of reading under these conditions, I have found, is the kind that does not require your entire brain. For instance, this would not have been an ideal time to pick up Proust or decide I wanted to refresh my foreign language skills by reading something in German or French. No. With few exceptions, my reading over the last two months has been simple and comforting and just the right sort of escape from the business topics I’ve spent most of my time dealing with.
I read a few books that were new to me – I loved Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl, enjoyed but, rather to my surprise, did not adore Elinor Lipman’s The Inn at Lake Devine, and was disappointed by Kristan Higgins’ new release (The Perfect Match) – but for the most part I chose to reread old favourites. I slipped happily into the pages of Magic Flutes, Madensky Square and The Morning Gift by Eva Ibbotson, giggled my way through Laughing Gas by P.G. Wodehouse for the umpteenth time, delighted in the epistolary exchanges of More Than Love Letters by Rosy Thornton, and returned to my beloved Barsetshire in Wild Strawberries by Angela Thirkell.
But the surprising highlight of the last few weeks has been my reading of Hester Browne’s “Little Lady Agency” trilogy, which consists of The Little Lady Agency, Little Lady, Big Apple, and The Little Lady Agency and the Prince.
I already knew I liked Hester Browne’s books. I’d read The Runaway Princess, Swept Off Her Feet (which I reread again this month), and The Finishing Touches (which I adore, and not only because it has so many helpful housekeeping tips) but never the trilogy which Browne is probably best known for. It is chick-lit, which is a difficult genre for me, but Browne is more than capable of handling it in a way that entertains rather than infuriates.
It is rare to find a chick-lit heroine you can actually like. Most of the time, they seem cursed with an inability to communicate and just an altogether twisted set of values. I do not give a damn what brand of shoes you are wearing, ladies. I could not care less how glossy your hair is, and your inability to master basic human life skills like managing a chequebook or cooking a meal makes me want to hit you over the head. Given all that, Browne’s lovely young ladies are quite refreshing. They have normal foibles and generally a distinct lack of confidence but they are basically stable and practical and always have many helpful etiquette/general lifestyle tips that this reader appreciates.
Taken individually, I’m not sure how much I would have enjoyed at least the first two books in the trilogy. They are funny and I love Melissa Romney-Jones, the book’s heroine, but they are frustrating. They are very much the first two acts of a three act play and I finished both books concerned for Melissa. Taken as a whole, however, they are delightful and immensely satisfying.
Melissa, a self-effacing twenty-seven year old as the books begin, finds confidence when she creates the alter ego “Honey”, a (bewigged) blonde bombshell who helps the privileged but hopeless single men of London deal with the many perplexities of life that married men usually rely on their wives to sort out. The Little Lady Agency offers everything but sex and laundry. In her work as Honey, Melissa meets an intense American real estate agent, Jonathan Riley, and eventually they begin a relationship that spans all three books.
All three books are written in the first-person, from Melissa’s point of view. Melissa, bless her, is sensible but not self-aware. From the beginning, the reader has a better idea of Melissa than she does herself. And we certainly have a better idea about Jonathan and about who Melissa would really be happy with. But Browne doesn’t rush it and I loved that. I hate rushed endings and I hate too-good-to-be-true men as the solution and/or reward to a heroine’s struggles. Instead, Browne lets Melissa’s confidence grow over several years until she finally begins to see herself as she really is and to have confidence in that woman. Confidence enough to demand to be treated as she should be treated and to go after what she truly wants. Melissa’s life ebbs and flows in, allowing for some absurdities provided by her exhausting, eccentric, and ethically dubious family members, a relatively matter of fact way. The grandest gestures are not necessarily the most meaningful ones. I really enjoyed this series and look forward to rereading it.