A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Someone who’s known me for years said recently that he was surprised I was reading – let alone publicly reviewing – romantic fiction. When I asked him ‘Why?’ (in fact, I believe I may actually have said ‘Wherefore?’, but that’s what being over-educated and facetious does for you), he muttered something about ‘Just not being the sort of thing I imagined you’d read”, and changed the subject.
I don’t quite understand why otherwise reasonable and fair-minded people should get all would-be superior and snidey about romantic fiction – especially when our society is so wedded to the SUCCESS = MONEY = SUCCESS mantra. Romantic fiction is very big business, and at its best it’s also entertaining, relaxing and life-enhancing – which is a lot more than you can say for daytime television.
Miranda Dickinson’s debut novel Fairytale of New York is a case in point.
The storyline is very straightforward: Englishwoman Rosie Duncan has moved to New York to escape her past and is running a florist’s shop called Kowalski’s. The shop thrives, her fame grows and inevitably her past catches up with her. The pleasure in most romantic novels is not in the plot – it’s in the telling. The journey, in effect, matters more than the destination.
For a first-time author, Miranda Dickinson demonstrates a remarkably assured narrative hand – especially considering that the book is written in that most difficult of voices – the first person. Rosie’s personality – in all its repressed glory – jumps off the page at you. In fact, all of the main female characters are very well realized. With the men, however, her touch is a little less certain. For me neither of the two men at the centre of the story ever quite came fully into focus. They served their purpose in the narrative perfectly well, but thinking back after I’d read the book, I felt they weren’t on a par with the women and needed just a little more work to make them totally convincing.
My real quibble with Fairytale of New York however is that after a long and well-constructed lead-in which really cranks up the tension the ‘dreadful secret’ buried in Rosie’s past, which she is so unwilling to reveal, turns out to be something quite mundane. We’d been led to expect something much more shocking and it was, frankly, a bit of a let-down.
Nevertheless, it’s a lovely read. Miranda Dickinson has a happy way with words, a knowing eye for the tragi-comic behaviour of the smitten heart and a nice sense of comic timing:
Take Billy Whitman, for example. He started coming to my shop at the end of last year. He is hopelessly in love with the girl whose desk is across the office floor from his. The highlight of his day is when she crosses the office to the water-cooler by his desk because she always smiles at him. That daily smile has become the reason he can’t wait to get to work in the morning, and even though this is the only contact he has with her each day, it is enough to have completely stolen his heart. Billy sends roses from Kowalksi’s every first Monday of the month to the girl across the office – always red and always a dozen with a card that reads ‘From your office admirer’. To date, he hasn’t yet had the courage to add his name to the card, even though [we] have all urged him to do so. Consequently, Miss Emily Kelly thinks the roses are from one of the managers and is slowly dating her way through middle management in a bid to discover the sender of her monthly bouquet …
Although it’s not perfect, Fairytale of New York is a engaging piece of story-telling, a promising debut and the ideal companion on a long train journey.
It’s not great literature, but it is great fun … and for me, that’ll do nicely.
Avon (HarperCollins). 2009. ISBN: 978-1-84756-165-7. 390pp.
(SIDENOTE: Yesterday, in a slightly confused article in the Daily Mail, Danuta Kean (a former judge of the Romantic Novel of the Year Award) complained about the lack of passion in modern romance novels, citing this year’s shortlisted books (of which ‘Fairytale of New York’ was one, along with Lost Dogs and Lonely Hearts and The Glass Painter’s Daughter) as examples of ‘depressingly limp romantic fiction’. She named Rhett Butler and Heathcliff (of all people) as great ‘romantic’ heroes and hailed the ‘resurgence of red-blooded men’ in – wait for this – Stephenie Meyer’s ‘Twilight’ novels. )