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.
Jo Patterson is one of nature’s rut dwellers, according to her husband. So? Ruts are easy and he’s an idiot. It’s his fault she’s marooned in the Yorkshire wilds and, if only he’d see sense, she’d be back to Wimbledon before you could say Sainsbury’s. As it is, this staid suburbanite finds herself tramping the moors as a beater on the castle shoot. Never mind the sweat, swamps and not knowing a grouse from a canary, she needs the cash and the company. She knows even less about corporate finance, but a bizarre conversation overheard by the butts leads her, willy-nilly, into a fraud investigation. Soon she’s hauling drunken spies from wrecked cars, fending off lecherous rock stars – and contemplating adultery. Whatever happened to that respectable housewife and mother? Jo’s inclined to blame the dog.
Yes, well, I think the blurb probably tells you everything you need to know, smacking as it does of quite simply too many plot lines. I have to say straight up that this is definitely not one of Kate Fenton’s best. In fact it may even be the least enjoyable Fenton book I’ve read (sorry, Kate …) and I speak as a Kate Fenton fan as to be honest she was always better than all the Katie Fforde offerings put together, but during her heyday she just didn’t strike it as lucky as Fforde.
Anyway, this book is something of a muddle. The big problem was that I didn’t believe in Jo, who seemed to swing wildly between being very irritating and very stupid, though sometimes she was both. You do absolutely need a sympathetic heroine for women’s romantic comedy, and unfortunately Jo isn’t that gal. Neither is her growing relationship with Paddy, the man she meets in Yorkshire, believable either – I didn’t get much feeling of romance between them, and indeed both Jo and Paddy were for a lot of the time rather more two-dimensional than the characters Fenton is usually so good at portraying. I felt really let down, and annoyed too.
The plot is also very confusing – my mind glazed over at the information about running a company and corporate wheeler-dealering and it simply didn’t fit with the genre of story Fenton writes best. I think it would have been better if the fraud plot had been entirely removed and we could have concentrated on the more important aspects of Jo’s new life without her philandering husband and how she adapts to living in the countryside. Speaking of which, there are a fair amount of clichés here about what townies feel about the country and I also gained the impression that, by using the setting of posh country folk, Fenton was trying to copy Jilly Cooper in some way. No need, Kate! Because Fenton’s great skill is in creating down-to-earth characters with interesting jobs who are facing important life-changes. Jo ticks the latter box but misses out on the earlier two. It felt as if the lack of real job meant Jo could never actually settle to anything and therefore couldn’t develop any real depth in the novel. Frankly, I wasn’t made to care enough.
That said (and yes I know it’s a lot …), the writing itself is absolutely fine but it felt as if Fenton was churning this one out with her eyes half-shut, and with no real commitment to either character or story. It’s interesting, and also saddening, that Fenton herself reveals that she is currently suffering from writer’s block, and I therefore wonder if the beginnings of that malaise can be seen in this novel. There’s something to be said for taking a break and restarting one’s writing journey once the energy is back, but every sympathy to her … It’s hard to see a good, even brilliant, writer fade away like this.
Finally, no, I’ve no idea what the title means either – it appears to have nothing at all to do with the story though I accept I may have missed something on the way through as in the end I wasn’t paying that much attention. But really I wouldn’t read this book: for Picking Up, substitute Putting Down. Instead, do yourself a huge favour and go and find some earlier Fenton offerings: I can absolutely sing the praises of Lions and Liquorice, Balancing on Air, Dancing to the Pipers and The Colours of Snow, all of which are pitch-perfect, witty and wise. If you can find them, that is (shame on you, publishers: why are early Fentons so ruddy hard to find in spite of being every one of them a classic??) In the meantime, I hope Fenton recovers from the writing blockage she appears to be experiencing still and rediscovers her hugely energetic writing voice once more because, in spite of this particular offering, I’m most definitely still a fan.
Happy Read rating: 1 out of 10 – the worst yet (but her earlier novels I’ve mentioned would definitely be 10s!)
Picking Up by Kate Fenton, Hodder & Stoughton 2001, ISBN: 0 340 76916 5
[Anne was born in the country and spent many years trying to escape it but the lack of regular buses put paid to all her plans. She herself has written about mysterious goings-on in rural parts.]