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.
Who’s Afraid of Mr Wolfe begins with the heroine having a brilliant idea, which gets Hazel Osmond’s warm, exuberant and funny debut novel off to a great start. My habit is to try hard not to give away beginnings, so I won’t tell you what that idea is, even if I’m a bad, spoilerific person about endings. This is a romantic comedy: it’s got a happy ending, OK? The hero and the heroine do live happily ever after, but only at the end of a journey full of twists and turns, with sadness and disaster as well as laughter, joy and utterly wish-fulfilling sex.
When I picked up this novel, I saw a personal warning sign on the cover. Now, I refuse to rank Heathcliff among romantic heros – among terrifying sociopaths, yes. How many books do I want to read about terrifying sociopaths? Just the one, I think. But there on the cover is the hero, ‘Jack Wolfe – Heathcliff in a suit’. What does that foretell? That he’s strong, Northern and wildly charismatic? That’s Heathcliff-lite as far as I’m concerned. However, he does make good on that promise by behaving, in my book (The Handbook for Old Feminist Bats), remarkably badly on a number of occasions – so badly that a tiny niggle I have with this entertaining book is – finally, how can there be any way back from what he has done? I’m hoping that, as it also says on the cover ‘He’s tall, dark and very, very wicked’, this is not a spoiler. So – for once the Heathcliff comparison will serve. And he *is* strong, Northern, wildly charismatic and with a reputation and a Past.
Ellie Somerset is kind, beautiful, talented, scruffy, and in a rut in her professional and personal life. The setting for the novel is the City of London and the world of advertising: Ellie is a copywriter, working with designer Lesley as a creative team, producing fantastic ideas, but hiding them under a pretty large bushel. The partnership where she works is marking time, too, living on a shelf-full of past awards. The arrival of Jack Wolfe, with his reputation for taking on ad agencies that are treading water and turning things round with extreme prejudice, means that both the firm, and Ellie, must brace themselves. Jack recognises Ellie’s intelligence and talent, but finds himself strongly drawn to her beauty and personality too. How hard will it be for him to keep to his rule not to mix relationships with business? I’d better not say ….
For me, there are several features that power this energetic novel along. Hazel Osmond knows this world of advertising well, and pulls this reader into it in a convincing way. We find out what makes people get up in the morning to do this job – it’s an exciting and creative life, but one that has its mundane passages as well as the adrenalin rush of success. She has a gift for satire too – several of the characters in the book (typically, those in Jack Wolfe’s sights) are hilariously pretentious.
I enjoyed the powers of description – I could picture the working environment, the city streets and the characters’ homes. At one point, Jack looks out of his new office window at the City of London skyline, and reflects on the attraction of the old and new, skyscrapers and spires jostling together, which I loved because it chimed so closely with my own reaction to it. (Wish it had been a City skyline silhouetted on that cover, by the way – I just love The Gherkin). It’s funny, too, where it needs to be (and not where it shouldn’t be) – scintillating with one-liners and zingers, and the conversations between characters are warm and witty. But it’s not a case of laughs on every page – the changes of tone are well judged, for there are also passages of seriousness, sadness and pathos.
It can be very, very sensual too – the story of two people who are wildly attracted to one another. As the chemistry between them is such a strong force, there is a sense in which these two vibrant people cut a swathe through the other characters, whose light tends to burn rather dim in comparison. Ellie’s other love interests, past and potential, ultimately had so little of what it takes that I almost felt sorry for them. There are characters to love, though, in particular another pair of lovers, whose story is handled with empathy and care – and I’d have liked even more of it – and a loveable, dotty great-aunt who’s ‘dea-ex-machina’. Relationships in the workplace make a fraught subject, it must take courage to tackle it and needs skill and empathy to make it work, all of which are on display here in abundance. Although I had to get past Mr Wolfe’s Heathcliffean tendencies, and the mad inadvisability of this, or any, big boss mixing relationship and work from a position of power, I found the vitality and warmth of Ellie’s spirit managed to carry me through with only a modicum of urging her to contact the Citizens Advice Bureau. This is thanks to the author’s ability to convince me of the strength of character and prevailing good qualities of her hero and heroine – so that in the end each of them (and I as a reader) can see past what they do to who they are.
Altogether, this is a funny, sexy, heart-warming debut. Hazel Osmond is a fresh voice in romantic fiction, and I’m looking forward to reading more good things from this author.
Hazel Osmond: Who’s Afraid of Mr Wolfe? Quercus, 2011. 490pp
ISBN 13: 9781849164184