Stately Pursuits

Wild Designs

Life Skills by Katie Fforde
(St. Martin's, $24.95, PG) ISBN 0-312-20951-7
It's been a little over a year now since TRR editor Dede Anderson sent me a book entitled Wild Designs to review. I was immediately impressed by Katie Fforde's sly wit and realistic characters. In no time at all I had read this British author's three other novels, and waited anxiously for word of her next release.

In the ensuing months, I found several other British authors, including Marian Keyes and Helen Fielding, who also write bubbly romantic comedies. And now that Fforde has finally published a new book, I'm not quite as impressed. Her star doesn't shine quite as brightly when it's not the only one in the sky.

The novel starts off in a similar manner to Fforde's previous stories, with our heroine making a life-changing decision. In this case, Julia Fairfax dumps her dull, pretentious fiancÚ, and quits her job when she is denied a well-deserved promotion. Improbably, she lands a job working on a small hotel boat that offers tours of the English canal system. Her boss is Suzy Boyd, a young heiress who is trying to prove to her overly protective daddy that she is capable of running her own business and earning her own keep. The two women are almost literally up a creek without a paddle when the surly young man who is supposed to assist them quits abruptly. But fate smiles on them; Julia's well-meaning but meddling mother sends help in the form of Fergus Grindley.

Julia's and Fergus' mothers are best friends, but Julia has hated Fergus for years, ever since he played an unpardonable prank on her when they were teenagers. She hasn't seen him since then, but her resentment has only grown due to her mother's insistence on telling her how smart and successful Fergus has become. While Julia is reluctant to accept her nemesis' help, Suzy convinces her that they have no other choice.

For some unknown reason, Fergus is attracted to Julia, who does little more than growl at him. She admits that he is handsome, capable and intelligent. But Julia refuses to become involved with someone hand-picked by her mother. Besides, her life is complicated enough as it is. Her ex-fiancÚ won't take "no" for an answer, and her ex-employer accuses her of stealing valuable company documents. Then suddenly, through a bizarre twist of fate, she has to abandon her fledgling career on the canals and make some critical decisions about her life.

Reading this novel led me to the realization that our notorious TSTL ("Too Stupid To Live") heroine has a cousin: TCTL ("Too Clueless To Live"), and that Julia is a walking advertisement. I became increasingly exasperated when she repeatedly treated Fergus abominably and pushed him away for no good reason. Confronted with a rare male specimen of almost perfect character, she fails to see what is in front of her face. Without giving away too much of the plot, I will say that she makes an extremely poor judgment call at a critical time. I started wondering if Fergus shouldn't have his head examined for continuing to pursue her, given her annoying and incomprehensible behavior.

As long as the story focuses on Julia and Suzy's efforts to manage the fledgling hotel boat business, the results are entertaining and frequently hilarious. The reader is caught up in the plot as the two women learn to develop new skills and work as a team together. But a little more than halfway into the book, the focus shifts away from the boat, and the momentum is halted. The rest of the novel only highlights Julia's inadequate qualities as a literary heroine.

If you're not familiar with Katie Fforde, you might not want to start your exploration with Life Skills, as it is not her best work. The humorous scenes and lines are very much in evidence ("What's wrong with marriage? It's a good institution." "So's a mental hospital, but I still don't want to be in one."). But the characters and plot pacing don't measure up this time. Instead, if you want a good British comedy, I recommend you read this talented author's earlier books, Wild Designs and The Rose Revived. I hope Fforde's "life skills" are put to better use in her next novel.

--Susan Scribner

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