Life Skills, by Katie Fforde

>> Wednesday, July 29, 2009

TITLE: Life Skills
AUTHOR: Katie Fforde

PAGES: 343

SETTING: Contemporary England
TYPE: Straight romance / chick lit

REASON FOR READING: My library had tonnes of Fforde's books, and I wanted to try one

A combination of overwork and jet-lag had propelled Julia Fairfax into becoming engaged to Oscar. She then realised she had fonder feelings for his adorable Labrador than for Oscar himself and that something was drastically wrong. Ditching her fiancé and jacking in her job, she decides to revolutionise her life.

Her new career as a cook on a pair of hotel boats is certainly a departure, and teaches her more about life than how to get a couple of narrow boats through a lock. But even afloat Julia’s past catches up with her. Not only must she contend with the persistent Oscar (not to mention his frigthful mother and her own mother’s determined matchmaking), but also the arrival of her childhood enemy, the enigmatic Fergus Grindley.
I've been fascinated by narrow boats since I moved to England and first saw then slowly floating down the canals. When I decided to try a Katie Fforde and realised Life Skills was set in one, I knew where to start.

Julia Fairfax has a boring job, a pompous, patronising upper-class twit of a fiance and some serious dissatisfaction with her life. As the book starts, she has decided to change her life radically, and you can't get more radical than break up with your fiance, quit your job and get another one as chef in a narrow boat hotel.

Julia knows nothing about narrow boats, and neither does her new boss, Suzy. Suzy has always been under the thumb of her very rich father, and this venture is a way of proving her abilities both to him and to herself.

They set out in quite a flimsy position, depending on a surly and mysoginist crew member who's the only one who knows how to manage the boat. This flimsy position quickly becomes almost untenable when the bastard quits (surprising the hell out of me, actually, as I was convinced he and Suzy were going to get together), and Suzy and Julia get left short of both extra hands and all experience.

But to the rescue comes Fergus Grindley, sent by Julia's kooky mother. Fergus was Julia's nemesis when they were children and she's not ready to forgive and forget. She has no chioice but to accept his help, but she doesn't have to be nice to him, does she?

I really can't decide whether this was chick lit or romance. I think I'm leaning towards romance, but with some elements of chick lit, so it would be a book I'd recommend to romance readers.

It's a feel-good, funny book, with good characters, and I loved learning about narrow boats, including the long, labourious process of getting them through the locks, something which I had the chance to see close up soon after, during a visit to Chester (see below).

I really liked the romance. Julia's a great character, sensible and loveable, with very dry wit. Fergus was lovely, a non-perfect, vulnerable figure, and obviously crazy about Julia, and I'm a bit evil that I liked seeing him suffer. Although, I must say, Julia was a bit too insistent on cutting off her nose to spite her face there in the end.

I also really liked the secondary romance. Suzy and her love interest, Wayne, are both characters who are much stronger and all-around great people than they seemed on the surface. And I even developed a bit of a fondness for Oscar, actually. He was a pompous, sexist ass, sure, but there has to be something good about a man who has such a crush on a woman like Julia ;-)

The humour was quite interesting. Right before Life Skills I read Watching the English, a truly fascinating sort of sociological analysis of English culture, and had been thinking of what it had to say about humour with regards to British chick lit I'd read. I was thinking of authors like Sophie Kinsella, and how yes, their humour is very much based on embarrassment.

I was expecting something similar here, but it was nothing like it. It's strange, because the book has a lot of potential for disastrous, tremendously embarrassing situations. There are plenty of instances of characters stuck in situations they don't really have the skills to deal with yet (or those skills are a bit shaky). Say, when Suzy and Julia's unreliable crewmember leaves them on the lurch two hours before the first passengers were due to arrive. Clearly, potential for funny, funny disaster here. But nope, they cope. They work hard and tirelessly, and they cope. Same thing when the Health and Safety inspector (really great character, btw; Fforde gets it right here) arrives. There's potential for disaster, but everything turns out to be fine. So the book wasn't at all funny in this sense (although it did have a bit of a wry sense of humour), but this did mean that it turned out to be warm and comforting.

My only criticism would be that the book felt a bit disjointed, in that there's a radical change in what it's about at about the mid-point. Suddenly the story isn't about making a success of a pair of hotel narrow boats on the canal, but about the romance and a very unexpected development for Julia. And there were a couple of story threads that didn't really go anywhere... what was that about the missing papers at Julia's office and their suing her? It just suddenly disappeared.

Still, even with that, it was a very enjoyable read.



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