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Archive for the ‘Katie Fforde’ Category

A French AffairI am a good library user.  I do not mind spending months in the hold queue for a much-anticipated book by a favourite author.  In fact, there is something rather satisfying and even exciting about a long wait, especially since you never know exactly when the book is going to become available.  But when it does finally appear, I refuse to wait any longer to read it. After months of waiting, Katie Fforde’s newest book, A French Affair, arrived at my library branch last night.  I started reading it early this morning (don’t you love waking up early in the summer, when it is bright and warm even at five o’clock?) and had it finished before breakfast.

I have a muddled relationship with Katie Fforde’s books.  I adore a few of them –Flora’s Lot and Thyme Out are two of my very favourite comfort reads – and like most of the others, but some make such a minor impression that I forget about them completely.  I am afraid A French Affair is destined to fall into that third category.  It is not bad it just lacks the energy and sense of fun that usually make Fforde’s books such enjoyable escapes.

Gina Makepiece and her sister Sally have inherited their aunt’s small collection of antiques and her stall at the French House, the antiques centre in the Cotswolds where she used to sell the items.  Neither woman knows anything about antiques – Sally is a stay-at-home mother and Gina is in PR – but it isn’t long before Gina is throwing herself fully into this new world, eager to learn and to help the French House (and its handsome but grumpy owner, Matthew) thrive.

I am used to Fforde’s flat male characters and Matthew remains predictably distant throughout the story, though he is a marked improvement on many of Fforde’s heroes.  What I had not expected was how slow-moving the rest of the story was and how uninteresting I found Gina.  Usually, Fforde’s heroines have a chaotic blend of family and business interests that keep them absorbed and active for the course of the novel.  Here, that energy was missing and as a result the whole book fell a little flat for me.

I wasn’t precisely disappointed by this book but I had hoped, after Fforde’s excellent last novel (Recipe for Love), that she was back on form after a series of lacklustre recent efforts.  Apparently not quite yet.  A French Affair is still an interesting read for any Fforde fan but not one of her books that I’m eager to return to.

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I find, a bit to my surprise, that I am in a rather chatty, light-hearted mood today, making this the perfect time to finally tackle all of the Katie Fforde novels I have been meaning to talk about for months.  I love Fforde’s books and count her as one of my go-to comfort read authors.  Her books are fun and frivolous, just the right thing for a lazy summer day at the beach, a sick day at home under the comforter, or just any time you feel the need for a bit of highly improbably but deeply satisfying romantic escapism.  Yes, her male characters are consistently flat, her romantic pairings are varying degrees of improbable, and the overall results vary widely in quality but when she is good, she is very, very good and when she is not, she is still far better than most.

I tend to read Fforde’s books in great, dizzying gulps, picking up handfuls at a time and reading them one after another.  I am not a reader who believes in moderation, particularly when it comes to light books like these.  Where is the fun in reading just one?  I love reading half a dozen over the course of a week or two, until my appetite for Fforde’s writing is more than sated, at which point I abandon her for a few months or a year, however long it takes until I feel the need to do it all over again.  Clearly, this is not an approach that works for everyone but I find it delightful.

This year, I started my reading off with Wild Designs (1996), which I always enjoy rereading.  Part of what I love about it is its “older” (at least older for these sorts of novels) heroine.  Althea, a divorced mother of three, is in her late thirties as the novel begins and, as in any Fforde novel, the focus is not just on getting her a man but on getting her life sorted out as an individual.  Gardening is Althea’s passion and the story, including her romance with handsome architect Patrick, revolves around her efforts to establish herself as a garden designer.  As a budding gardener myself, I was able to sympathize more with Althea now that I share her interests than I ever had on previous readings.  The descriptions of her garden designs make them sound atrocious but I was willing to just suspend my disbelief and have fun with the story, which I of course did.

As always with Fforde, the book is jammed with characters and full of events.  Althea goes to France, entertains her ex-husband, loses her job, wins the chance to show a garden plot at the Chelsea Flower show, helps her controlling younger sister through her first pregnancy, takes care of her three teenagers, watches her ex-husband take off with the girlfriend of the gorgeous Patrick, sells and moves house, and, of course, blunders through a romance with Patrick.  How does she find the energy to do it?

Some of the details felt strangely distant, moments where I thought “hey, I’d forgotten all about that”, but served as fun reminders of the not-so-distant past.  The book came out in 1996 and Althea’s ex-husband, having spent years in Hong Kong, comes home so as to be gone before the 1997 transfer of sovereignty.  When checking into a hotel with a man, Althea is conscious and vaguely embarrassed that the desk clerk knows they are not married.  How the world has changed.

Thyme Out (2000), which I moved on to next, might have replaced Flora’s Lot as my favourite of Fforde’s books.  It is the story of Perdita, who runs a market gardening supplying local chefs with fresh produce.  In her late twenties, Perdita has a successful if not particularly profitable business and friendly relations with her customers.  She is best friends with the 87-year old Kitty, Perdita’s mother’s godmother (what an illegible description) who always took young Perdita in on school holidays, while her diplomatic parents were abroad.  She also took Perdita in after a hasty, disastrous marriage and divorce in her late teens and helped the younger woman build up her confidence and get back on her feet.  There has been no man in the picture since Perdita’s divorce but she promises she’ll get on to that.  Eventually.

But then Lucas, her ex-husband, appears, no longer the stressed City boy she was married to but a rising young chef at the local high-end hotel.  Slowly, the two get to know one another again, clashing all the way, and Perdita, who has spent the last decade blaming Lucas entirely for the divorce, is finally able to see the role she played in their marital woes.

Even more than Lucas, this book is about Perdita’s relationship with Kitty, the one person who has always been there for her.  She cannot come to terms with the prospect of the elderly and ailing Kitty’s death and Perdita pushes herself to the breaking point while caring for Kitty after she suffers a series of strokes.  When the inevitable happens, Perdita goes to pieces.

As usual, there are suitably random moments that seem to exist entirely to bulk up the novel (Perdita’s Christmas spent with an old school friend’s young family is particularly unrelated to the main plot) but part of what I love about Fforde’s novels is how busy her character’s lives are.  These people all have things to do aside from having complicated emotional entanglements; they spend just as much time focusing on friends, family, and especially work as they do love interests.

Restoring Grace (2004) and Summer of Love (2011) both deal with multiple protagonists (though the division of attention is far from equal in Summer of Love) and I never find this setup particularly satisfying.  All of the characters suffer, coming across as slight and unbelievable, making it difficult for me to sympathize with any of them.  Restoring Grace has fun details about art restoration but that’s really the only thing that stands out in my mind about it.  Summer of Love, which was my least favourite of the six of Fforde’s books that I read this spring, did do one thing very well: it had a believable child character.  Rory, the protagonist Sian’s four-year-old son, is thankfully unprecocious and behaves in a completely normal, unexceptional way.  It is amazing how rarely that happens.

Reading Living Dangerous (1995) after having read so much of Fforde’s later work, it is easy to spot that this was her first novel.  Polly, the thirty-five year old, aspiring potter protagonist, is the recognizable prototype for future Fforde heroines.  The romance, however, is a bit of a mess.  David is a distant hero, whose character seems to shift from chapter to chapter.  He is blandly inoffensive and though Fforde’s male characters have never really evolved into rounded, compelling individuals, he is definitely the flattest of the bunch.

The supporting cast is excellent though, from the uppity Melissa, at whose dinner party Polly and David meet, to Patrick, David’s teenage son, to Tristan, the bad boy radio journalist (an amusing contrast), who provides an unthreatening touch of excitement.  It was also interesting to see Fforde play with ideas and settings she returned to in later books (all generally to be used to better affect than they were here).

Finally, after a bit of a break since I was at the mercy of the library, I read Fforde’s most recent book: Recipe for Love (2012).  I adored it.  I giggled and laughed my way through it in one evening, thrilled that after string of disappointing recent efforts Fforde was back on form.  I also honestly liked the main characters, which, as much as I enjoyed reading the other books, has not always been the case (the obvious exceptions being my two favourites: Flora’s Lot and Thyme Out).

The premise is fantastic: Zoe is a contestant on a television cookery show and falls for Gideon, one of the judges.  I loved reading about the cooking challenges and was thoroughly entertained by all of the other contestants, from the very nice to the very nasty.  Most of all, I loved reading about Zoe’s growing friendship with Fen and Rupert, supporting characters from Fforde’s earlier novels, who are hosting the cast and crew on their struggling estate.  The friendly Zoe is always popping in and out of the big house, helping out the pregnant Fen when Rupert is away or busy, and when Gideon comes to stay in the house the progression of their relationship makes sense (not always a given in Fforde’s books).  Zoe’s helpfulness, always pitching in to avert crises even when it means she might do poorly in the competition, only made her more delightful.  I do like nice characters, especially ones like Zoe who prove you can be nice without being a pushover.

After all of those, unsurprisingly, my need for Fforde’s fiction was met.  Looking back on my reading notes from February and March, which is when I was working my way through these books, the most common word I used in my write ups was fun.  And that they absolutely are.

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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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