by Diane Hall
Disclaimer: Though I, as a writing coach and consultant, deliver literary feedback and critiques as a service, this review is written from the viewpoint of any other reader (something that I happen to be, outside working hours!) It is not a critique.
The Chic Boutique on Baker Street
At first glance, TCBOBS looks like any other chick-lit novel. What you may not notice is that it’s released under the HarperCollins’ Mills and Boon imprint. After submitting this manuscript to a ‘Flirty Fiction’ competition in Prima magazine, Rachel Dove won first prize, and the book was born.
I was once a Mills and Boon subscriber, and one of my favourite, ‘go-to’ reads is from the series. I must have read that particular title over a hundred times, and on every occasion, the ‘swoon factor’ does its job. Unfairly, in my opinion, Mills and Boon can conjure connotations of cheesy, tacky, predictable story-lines. Having not read any of their titles for a good few years, on the basis of TCBOBS, this must surely be a charge that’s laid to rest.
TCBOBS is formulaic, admittedly, but so is practically every other chick-lit novel. It’s precisely the reason many women choose these books; the froth and bubble, the hope and romance, the happy ending and handsome characters….all provide a welcome distraction from the housework and kids shouting ‘what’s for tea?’
We’re introduced to a homely, caring, craft-loving girl – Amanda – who has found herself working as a cut-throat lawyer in the City. I say ‘found’ – she was bulldozed into this profession by her ruthless, shallow parents. Amanda finally finds the guts to leave the firm, the city, and her old life, after her equally-shallow lawyer boyfriend does the dirty on her, both professionally and personally. Rather than exorcising these demons, Amanda makes what most would consider a rash decision: ploughing her savings into a commercial property, with flat above, within the ‘sleepy’ village of Westfield, Yorkshire. Telling no one, she does a quick flit.
Hoping to sell her crafty wares, and for a simpler pace of life, Amanda immediately finds herself at odds with the local vet, Ben, over her business plan. As well as his practice, Ben owns the dog-groomers next door to Amanda’s ‘New Lease of Life’ shop, and he insults her, insisting she’s another fly-by-night city-dweller who plans to shove her unwanted creations on Westfield’s inhabitants before the draw of Mulberry bags and Louboutin shoes eventually calls her back to London. Single-but-bruised (of course), and the catch of the village (of course), Ben can’t help but feel the instant chemistry between them, despite his professional objections.
Cue endless misunderstandings that fuel the ‘will they, won’t they’ formula, even though readers can guess from page 5 that the pair will end up together eventually. TCBOBS brings largely credible reasons for the confusion that ensues, though it does threaten to stray into comical farce in a couple of places; however, this didn’t feel out of character nor did it jar, so it’s easy enough to go with it. I did want to knock both their heads together by the fourth quarter, though, but I took that as a good sign – had I not cared for the characters, the book would have been tossed aside ages before. Instead, I sped through it in a couple of days (it would have been quicker but I’m very busy!), picking it back up at every opportunity, to see how their love story further unfolded.
Supporting characters involved another love story, which brought a Downton Abbey feel. The ‘high priestess’ of the village, Agatha, who’s privileged but endearing and harmless, manages to step aside both class and tradition (both of which matter only to her), to marry her butler/handyman/chauffeur/childhood friend, Taylor (sorry, Sebastian). A gaggle of OAPS, young at their solid-gold hearts, meddle just enough to get the results they’re after without offending anyone in the process.
Yorkshire folk may have stronger opinion about TCBOBS, as ‘Yorkshireness’ (I know that’s not a word) is an intrinsic element, and stereotypes do feature here and there; Westfield, I would venture, is based on a North Yorkshire village. Come south of the county, for example, after reading TCBOBS, and you’d find fewer similarities; I like to think the author painted the picture of Yorkshire we aspire to – where community is strong, and generations remain in the same five-mile radius as time marches by; the James Herriot Yorkshire. It does exist, and it’s why we call Yorkshire ‘God’s own county’.
The book has a lovely flow to it, akin to a gentle drift down a lazy river in a canal boat. It’s bright and sunny – no real heartbreaks or adrenaline rushes to spoil the smile that will undoubtedly creep across your face as Ben and Amanda finally say ‘I do’. Everything is so neatly packaged up by the end that I’m interested to see what may come next in the series.
If you’re looking for unadulterated escapism, a reminder that there are people who genuinely ‘do good’, and a warm glow in an otherwise humdrum/never-a-second daily routine, you won’t be disappointed. If, however, you’re looking for sex scenes that you could curl your toes to – which feature in many other Mills and Boon titles – you won’t find any here.
TCBOBS in one word: wholesome.