Friday, February 18, 2011

The Finishing Touches

When I read this book the other day, I was feeling pretty down - the beginnings of food poisoning, as it turned out - so I'm not discounting the possibility that the distraction this book offered made it seem much better than it otherwise might. That said: I'm giving this book a solid intra-genre four stars, and an overall rating of three.

I'm not going to describe the plot in detail. A young woman goes back to London to help her adoptive father fix the family business, a finishing school for young ladies. Hijinks ensue. That's really enough to be going along with.

Hester Browne's The Finishing Touches offers everything a chick lit distraction typically ought: a protagonist in search of her own identity, two handsome hero options, fashion, a few catty bitches, one best friend, and a happy ending. As per usual, the heroine's identity turns out to be what it always was, more or less, the handsomer of the two heroes is the right one and the other is totally okay with that, the catty bitches get their comeuppance, and the ending is, as I mentioned, happy.

What makes this book a little different is that most of these outcomes are achieved with a minimum of strain to the reader's credulity, despite the fact that the whole plot hinges on the heroine's slight mental disability: she can't always seem to figure out what's going on, even though the reader can*. Since this weakness is common to almost all romance and chick lit works, however, and Browne depends on it less than most, I'm not going to quibble too much. Touches doesn't even approach the level of "Huh?" disconnect found in many novels of this type, in which the heroine is described as intelligent, observant, bright, and so on, and then shown chewing her lip in desperate thought as she tries to figure out if the hero, who has just asked her to marry him, given up a billion-dollar business deal so that her drug-addict brother can stay out of jail, and flown her to Barbados so she can recover from losing her retail job, actually likes her or something.

We won't even get into the "independent" heroines who inevitably become hysterical during thunderstorms, can't change a tire, and are overcome with existential dread when asked to attend a cocktail party with people who have more money than they do. Marriage and children are usually the romance/chick lit heroine's endgame, and feminist scholars everywhere decry this as proof that the independent romance heroine is anything but; I beg to differ, since forming a family unit and passing on your genome seem like pretty basic urges, no matter what your standpoint on the universally invoked patriarchal straw man may be. By all means, look for a man and a house in the burbs, but for God's sake, ladies of literature, water goes in the radiator, not the oil tank.

End rant.

In short, the protagonist of Touches, while sometimes a little dim, isn't more so than the average person, and is therefore mostly realistic. The plot hangs together pretty well. The book has some real moments of funny, contains generally painless dialogue, and overall entertains for a couple of hours. It's definitely worth the four dollars one might pay for it at a used bookstore**.

* This is unusual in contemporary fiction, and Browne gets a big gold star for narrative flow. Contrary to what most reviewers seem to believe, when the readers don't have the slightest frigging clue what's going on in a work of fiction, the inevitable conclusion is not that the author is a visionary, a master of evocative prose, or a genius poised to transform the American literary landscape. It means the author can't write.

** Also unusual in contemporary fiction.

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