Archive for the ‘Hester Browne’ Category

Shoe Rows by Wayne Thiebaud

Shoe Rows by Wayne Thiebaud

I am rereading a book that, when I first encountered it several years ago, gave me arguably the most practical piece of advice I have every received from a novel.  I use it constantly and share it whenever possible, so, without further ado, I give my lady readers the secret for arriving at meetings in walk-up offices with elegance and poise:

I took off my shoes to tackle the three flights of stairs better, and paused halfway up the last flight, so I could replace them and catch my breath before arriving in elegant calm.  No point in looking unfit and at a disadvantage.

Thirty years of life surrounded by intelligent, elegant career women – not to mention six years at an all-girls school – and I had to learn this from a book.  But so happy to have learned it!  It is from Hester Browne’s The Little Lady Agency, the first of a very fun trilogy of books.  And Browne’s good advice does not end there.  It is scattered throughout all her novels, most especially The Finishing Touches, about the attempt to revive a finishing school for the 21st Century.

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I am not one to rush towards new technology.  No one has ever accused me of being an early adopter.  I may admire new technologies and innovations, I may think them clever and even useful, but it generally takes more than that to convince me to commit to them.  I need an incentive.  This is why I didn’t get an e-reader until I discovered I could read The Princess Priscilla’s Fortnight by Elizabeth von Arnim on it for free.  And it is why I didn’t join NetGalley until this summer, when I realised that by doing so I might get to read The Honeymoon Hotel by Hester Browne months ahead of its release.  Well, I joined and I got to read it and, happily, have read a handful of other NetGalley books since.  Now, finally, I should probably get around to reviewing some of them.

9781451660548.225x225-75The Honeymoon Hotel by Hester Browne
I am a huge fan of Browne’s novels.  They are light and funny but have heroines who I can actually identify with.  Unlike the bulk of ChickLit novels, Browne’s female characters know how to balance a chequebook, dress appropriately, and generally behave like adult human beings.  Life is difficult enough as a single woman without being saddled with an infantile intellect or a crippling shoe fetish.

Rosie, an events manager at the exclusive Bonneville Hotel in London, has all the hallmarks of a Browne-heroine: she is organized, well-mannered, and has a completely awful boyfriend.  Working towards a promotion, the last thing she needs is the appearance of laid-back Joe, the son of the hotel’s owner, who after years of travel and general surfer dude behaviour has come back to learn the ropes of the family business.  Despite being generally affable and helpful, not to mention unthreateningly charming, Rosie finds it exhausting to work with Joe, especially when he gets involved with the wedding planning portion of the hotel business, Rosie’s special domain.

Something about this didn’t quite click for me.  Browne is really good at writing about female characters and their struggles to sort out their lives.  But her male characters are often poorly fleshed out and so the romances fall a bit flat, which is what happened here.  That said, I still really enjoyed the book and liked it well enough that I bought my own copy when it was released earlier this fall.

The Rise and Fall of Great PowersThe Rise & Fall of Great Powers by Tom Rachman
I loved Rachman’s first book, The Imperfectionists, and this was even better.   When we meet her, Tooly Zylberberg is in her early thirties and running an unprofitable bookstore in Wales.  Over the course of the novel, as it jumps around through her childhood and early adulthood, we learn about her unusual, globe-hopping childhood and the eccentric, rather shady, and essentially mysterious characters who raised and shaped her.  Completely wonderful and highly recommended.

At-Least-Youre-in-Tuscany-Gemelli-Press-ReviewAt Least You’re in Tuscany by Jennifer Criswell
A funny, unvarnished and honest memoir about an American woman’s life after she moves to Tuscany.  Single, struggling through Italian bureaucracy, and still with an uncertain grasp of the language, Criswell’s time in Italy is far from the sun-dappled idyll that so many other books chronicle.  And that is what makes it worth reading.  A nice reality check, reminding us that the Good Life takes some work.

In Your DreamsIn Your Dreams by Kristan Higgins
Talk about perfect timing.  My request for this, the fourth entry in Higgins’ “Blue Heron” series, was approved the night before I flew to Europe.  If there is anything nicer than having an eagerly anticipated book to read on a long plane ride it is being surprised with that book.  And I couldn’t have wished for something better to pass the hours – at least a few of them.  Sweet and funny, In Your Dreams is Higgins at her best, with a likeable heroine and a hero who actually gets to be a person in his own right.

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A Woman Reading by Ivan Olinsky

A Woman Reading by Ivan Olinsky

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.

little ladyBut 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.

Little Lady, Big AppleTaken 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.

the-little-lady-agency-and-the-princeAll 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.

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