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.
Fleur Daxeny is beautiful, unscrupulous, and has a large wardrobe of black designer suits. With the help of The Times announcements page she gatecrashes the funerals and memorial services of the wealthy, preying on rich, vulnerable men. She charms her way into their lives and onto their platinum credit cards, takes what she can, and then moves swiftly on. When Richard Favour, a dull but wealthy businessman, meets Fleur at his wife’s memorial service, he’s bowled over. Gradually Fleur works her spell on Richard’s reserved and stilted family – transforming their lives while she moves in on their wealth. She finds herself lingering longer than she meant to, becoming involved in the family – but as Fleur rifles through Richard’s files, it becomes clear that she is not the only one after his money.
I am rapidly becoming a committed Madeleine Wickham fan, if the evidence of this, the second book of hers I’ve read, is anything to go on. There’s something about the way she writes that’s both gripping and warm-hearted, and I simply can’t put the story down. It’s chick-lit with depth and humanity, and I love it.
What’s particularly impressive at the beginning is the way Wickham takes her anti-heroine, Fleur, and makes her into someone very sympathetic, even with all her faults. I would have thought from the blurb that I might have found her tricky but she never was, and indeed her methods of enticing the would-be prey into her very seductive net are both sharp and witty, and I liked that.
Indeed all the characters here are second to none, and who they are is indeed the story – there’s no need for any external plot interference as it’s the people themselves, their needs and their desires, who drive events, and that’s always very impressive to see. Somewhat rarer than you’d think too. I loved the way Wickham slowly but surely develops Richard so he’s always more than the sum of his parts. It was particularly refreshing within the chick-lit genre to see a hero who’s older (and indeed Fleur’s not entirely in her first flush of youth either, which is grand), extraordinarily gentle but strong when he needs to be too. I say that mainly because I do find the recent spate of chick-lit heroes who are nothing but bullies disguised as “strong and sexy men” very wearing and indeed worrying. I hope that little fad is over soon, and we get back to real men who are normal and don’t browbeat their women into romance. Harrumph!
Mind you, talking of browbeating, Richard’s son-in-law, Lambert, is a thoroughly nasty piece of work, and his treatment of the poor, rather downtrodden Philippa (Richard’s daughter) made me bristle with anger indeed, as the author intends. He’s a nice contrast to Richard however, and has his own secret agenda within the family which adds spice to the mix.
I must also say that I surprised myself by thoroughly enjoying the story-arc of Fleur’s teenage daughter, Zara, and Antony, Richard’s young son, too. They had a very quirky take on events going on around them, some of which was very to the point indeed, and were never anything less than entertaining and real. Plus their relationship is both funny and subtle:
‘Anyway,’ Zara added, ‘if you have sex too young you get cervical cancer.’
‘So-vital cancer?’ said Antony, mishearing. ‘What’s that?’
‘Cer-vi-cal, dummy! Cancer of the cervix. You know what the cervix is? It’s right here.’ She pointed to a spot at the top of her jeans fly-buttons. ‘Right up inside.’ Antony followed her finger with his gaze; as he did so he felt blood start to rush to his head. His hand shot up confusedly to his birthmark.
‘Don’t cover it up,’ said Zara.
‘What?’ His voice felt strangled.
‘Your birthmark. I like it. Don’t cover it up.’
‘You like it?’
‘Sure. Don’t you?’ Antony looked away, not knowing quite what to say. No-one ever mentioned his birthmark; he’d got used to pretending he thought it wasn’t there.
‘It’s sexy.’ Her voice fell, soft and raspy on his ears. Antony felt his breathing quicken. No-one had ever called him sexy before.
Quite lovely, I thought. The other factor I must mention, as it’s strangely charming, is the way Fleur changes for the better (though in some cases it takes a while) the lives of all Richard’s family even though her hidden agenda is so serious and it’s not always because she intends to be nice. Her presence makes them all reassess their pasts, even the effect of Richard’s deceased and not entirely pleasant wife on them, and look to move on. I thought that aspect was very powerful. Fleur too finds herself reassessing her lifestyle:
Out of the window she could just see the garden: the lawn, the pear tree, the badminton net which Antony and Zara had left up the night before. They were familiar sights. Too familiar. It would be surprisingly difficult to leave them. And, if she were honest with herself, it would be surprisingly difficult to leave Richard.
Mind you, on the slightly negative side, I would have loved to have seen more of Gillian, Richard’s long-suffering but quietly wise sister-in-law, and also the utterly flamboyant Johnny, Fleur’s friend and partner-in-crime, was a delight and I would have appreciated more of him on the page. Here he is after Antony has unexpectedly won a golf competition:
‘Congratulations, young man,’ said Johnny. ‘I despise the game of golf and everything associated with it, but congratulations nevertheless.’
Speaking as a golfer myself, I couldn’t help but laugh. Ah, it’s an obsession, not a hobby, you know … Another thing I’ve found in my brief foray into Wickham books is that you’re never entirely sure which way the plot is going to go even up until the very end so I was literally on the edge of my seat whilst I was reading the last few pages. And it was indeed a great ending so well worth it: without giving too much away, Richard and Fleur come to a positive but not-necessarily-what-you-might-think conclusion, which is realistic and uplifting; and I did appreciate how the story of Zara opens out into something else, possibly. It’s very clever indeed.
So, for me, this author is a real find and I’m sure it won’t be long before I devour a third offering. I can’t wait.
The Gatecrasher, Black Swan Press 2010, ISBN: 978 0 552 77672 1
Also available as an eBook
[Anne has never dared gatecrash anywhere and is indeed often too shy to attend her own parties, let alone anyone else’s.]