As a Katie Fforde fan, I must admit that I’m getting a little worried these days. Fforde, who used to be one of the leading British Chick Lit authors, is falling behind the rest of the pack in terms of that all-important “buzz,” and is in danger of being left behind. I’m sorry to report that Artistic License, her latest effort, won’t do much to put her back in the forefront. It’s cute and nicely offbeat, but it lacks substance and its romance falls flat.
You really have to wonder about a novel that has the heroine literally falling into the hero’s arms, not once, but twice. The first time Thea meets Ben, she is standing in the rubbish bin, trying to crush the trash enough to get the top on, when she loses her balance. Fortunately, she’s rescued by this handsome stranger who has stopped by Thea’s boarding home to help his niece, Petal. Ben is also somehow related to Molly, an elderly woman who has taken Thea under her wing after our heroine’s abrupt flight from London to the English countryside. In fact, Molly invites Thea to accompany her on a trip to France, where Thea meets a charming painter named Rory. Although Thea is eight years older than Rory, she impulsively accepts his open invitation to visit him in Ireland when she returns from France and is confronted with the mess her college-age boarders have made of her house.
Thea loses her nerve about having a passionate but meaningless fling with Rory when she sees him again, but she discovers something even more important when she views his artwork. Rory has undeniable talent, and suddenly Thea realizes her true calling in life - she will open an art gallery and showcase Rory’s paintings, thus introducing the world to a dazzling new artist.
Even after Thea finds an angel in the form of the wealthy and bored Molly, she faces an uphill battle to fulfill her dream, including finding the appropriate space, fixing it up and attracting the right type of customers. She gets little help from Rory himself, who is as undependable as he is charming, and she has to fight a growing attraction to the dour Ben, a single father who makes it clear that he is “not into relationships” (even if Thea does land in his arms again - that girl needs some serious balance lessons).
Artistic License starts out with great promise. I liked the slightly unusual plot and the fact that Thea’s former boyfriend cheated on her professionally, not personally - after all, some relationships end for reasons other than infidelity. And although Thea never actually consummates her relationship with Rory, she isn’t punished or hounded for having considered sleeping with him. I appreciate a novel that doesn’t pass judgment on the heroine’s sexuality.
The book also has contains a variety of amusing moments arising from absurd situations that, while not fodder for knee-slapping laughter, bring several cozy chuckles. As I said in a previous review of Fforde’s work, her stories are like strong tea laced with a shot of brandy.
But unfortunately, Thea displays too much doormat behavior as she lets Petal, Molly and Rory walk all over her. She’s also much too naïve about Rory’s character and too quick to forgive as well. Fforde always features a heroine who finds her true career as well as her true love, but Thea needed a spine implant earlier in the plot to make the reader care about her successes.
The romance between Thea and Ben never has a chance to fully develop because of Ben’s surliness. There’s a great deal of sulking on both sides before Ben’s inner conflict is resolved in the novel’s last ten pages - up until that point, our hero is still squiring around other women and placating his ex-wife. Once again, Thea forgives all and waives her very justifiable right to demand that Ben grovel for a while before she agrees to settle into domestic bliss with him.
As an entertaining look at one woman’s attempt to take charge of her life and find her niche in the world, Artistic License isn’t a bad bet. But as a romance it’s a dud. The novel also fails to include the well-developed secondary plot and characters that gave her previous release, Second Thyme Around, such depth. I know Fforde is capable of better work, and I hope her next release will bring me back to the surprised, delighted feeling I experienced when I read her first American release, Wild Designs.