|Isabel Wolff’s novels follow the standard British Chick Lit formula, but they are more fulfilling than many other examples of the genre. I’ve been particularly impressed by her interesting secondary characters and her compelling heroines’ surprising emotional depth. After a disappointing Red Dress Ink debut, Out of the Blue, Wolff returns to form with a satisfying, if somewhat too lengthy follow-up, Rescuing Rose.
Rose Costelloe earns great personal satisfaction from her job as one of London’s most popular Agony Aunts, dispensing advice through a daily newspaper column and weekly radio call-in show. She loves the fact that she’s able to help so many people in such a simple but effective way. The rest of her life is just fine, too…well, except for a few minor problems. Her brief marriage to handsome businessman Ed Wright collapsed when he had an affair with their marriage counselor. Her spotless new home is beyond her budget unless she takes in a boarder. Her formerly mute mynah bird has suddenly revealed his ability to talk by repeating, verbatim, large portions of Rose’s venomous arguments with Ed. She’s receiving an increasing number of phone calls from a nutcase heavy breather. And her boss at the newspaper, who has no respect for the important service she provides, wants her to publish more letters that feature sexual perversions to increase the paper’s sales.
Luckily Rose has friends who need her help, including inseparable but argumentative twins Bea and Bella and her neighbor Bev, a wheelchair-bound former athlete with an amazingly talented support dog named Trevor. Her new boarder, Theo, is a geeky but sweet accountant whose passion for astronomy helps him recover from his own heartbreak. As Rose diligently manages everyone’s careers and romances, she avoids any stray negative thoughts by making anagrams out of people’s names and obsessively cleaning her house. When her job is put in jeopardy and her almost-ex-husband reappears, Rose is finally forced to take a close look at herself and the deep insecurities she has felt since discovering a painful truth about her origins more than 20 years ago.
At more than 400 pages, there is slightly more to Rescuing Rose than there needs to be, but if you stay with it through a slow start, you will find a very engaging story. Rose is a not entirely likeable heroine, especially at first; she’s a control freak who can’t see that she’s at least partially responsible for her marriage’s failure. Although she harbors disturbing secrets about her biological mother and her relationship with her adoptive parents, she insists she is not at all affected by her past. But although she’s clueless, she’s not selfish or mean-spirited, and she genuinely wants to help people. By the time she stops living in denial, you’re exasperated but not quite out of patience with her.
The secondary characters are both entertaining and sympathetic, especially Bev, who turns her personal tragedy into a productive career and Henry, Rose’s former boyfriend who has an unusual proclivity. The most charming character, however, is Theo Steen, Rose’s boarder. If you like shy, nerdy but ultimately romantic beta heroes, as I do, you’ll root for Rose to wake up and realize he’s perfect for her despite the ten year age difference.
Rose’s growing self-awareness forms the core of the novel, but there’s plenty of cheeky British humor to lighten it up along the way. The most obvious humor is provided by Rudolph Valentino, the mynah bird with perfect recall, but you’ll also get a kick out of the way Rose inadvertently discovers the ultimate solution for getting rid of those annoying Jehovah’s Witness visitors. Of course, having a heroine who is an Agony Aunt allows Wolff to include bizarrely hilarious letters and phone calls, along with some that are poignant and sad.
By the end of the novel, almost all of the characters have found the happiness they deserve and Rose has finally come to terms with her past. Perhaps the revelations have been a little too tidy and Rose’s transformation a little too easy, but that’s why we read British Chick Lit fiction, isn’t it? Especially when it’s presented in such a stylish, well-written package.