Monday, April 07, 2008

First Impressions - The Little Lady Agency by Hester Browne

A while ago, I wanted to read something airy and light. A friend of mine loaned me Hester Browne’s ‘The Little Lady Agency’ – a book written in tradition of most chic-lit capers and Hollywood rom-coms.

I enjoyed it immensely, though. Possibly because I pored over it during my favorite times of the day– on the bed on lazy weekends, with strong tea over breakfast, with a bag of chips during some free time in office, in the autorickshaw on a pleasant morning, in a long bus ride. But even without such temporal, culinary and lifestyle accoutrements, the book was a nice, breezy read.

The book is about this girl, Melissa, who can’t seem to get a break in life. She comes from a moneyed but embarrassing family. Her father is a local MP with an armoire full of scandals. In fact, Melissa has spent most of her school years dodging her way through her father’s colorful escapades. He’s the sort of parent who feeds off his children’s inadequacies and prides himself on being judgmental and critical. Her mother is a pleasant, mild trophy-wife who has a nicotine addiction. Her sisters come equipped with unique defense mechanisms of their own – one has the pleasantness of a cactus and the other one has the grounding of a soap bubble.

She is the most organized and disciplined girl of the lot, and an unsuspecting martyr in most family situations.

Melissa works in a real estate firm and lives with an exemplary flatmate Nelson. He is employed in some sort of indeterminable tax/ accounting business and is also engaged in a variety of social causes. He bakes the best brownies and proffers a strong, comforting shoulder when Melissa cries over her heartbreaks. Now, her heartbreaks are numerous and deep, given her crippling bad taste in men. In recent times, she has been let down by her lover.

One day, the real estate firm is taken over by an American agency and her services are terminated. What makes the deal more awful than normal is that she owes her father some money – it’s the money she had borrowed for her no-good boyfriend. Her father who seems to have minimal scruples liberally uses this loan as a manipulating tactic to get her to do thankless jobs, such as organizing her sister’s wedding single-handedly.

At a club one evening, Melissa runs into an old school friend and is taken in with her charming and posh transformation. The friend puts Melissa in touch with their erstwhile Home Ec. teacher who runs some sort of an agency that provides ‘discreet companionship’ to ‘busy business men.’ Although it starts off meekly, Melissa finds herself in a spot when a man insists on having sex with her.

Although Melissa hastily abandons the job, she is rather taken in with the money. It’s a fabulous way of getting rich quickly. If only one didn’t have to throw the money baby with the sex bathwater.

One thing leads to another and she starts her ‘Little Lady Agency’ – an agency that will provide organizational and social support to men who need it. Sex is out of the question. What does fall into the ambit are the sort of dilemmas gauche, single men may find themselves in – geeks who don’t have a date for a business dinner, men who cannot fire their housemaids, guys who are really bad with selecting gifts for their women relatives and friends, men who want to throw a party but don’t know the difference between a beer mug and a wine glass, etc.

The catch here is that Melissa operates the agency under another identity – Honey Hesterneckett. Hoeny is a sassy, sexy, voluptuous woman with golden hair and high heels. ( Melissa has dark hair and considers her curves to be ‘rolls of fat’.)

In the course of her job, she meets an American, Jonathan, who is the boss of the American company that has taken. In time, she falls in love with the guy and stands up to her obnoxious father.

Admittedly, much of the book is predictable. However, I suppose the British setting makes it really fun to read with interesting British phrases – ‘tempting’, ‘jollities’, ‘knickers’, etc. And while it is not exactly a treatise on seduction, the novel does have some fascinating pointers – like if you want to sound good on the phone, you ought to think of something really relaxing and interesting. In one portion, Melissa thinks of creamy white chocolate being poured in bone white china before attending a call. And a spritz of perfume in the stilettos goes a long way in making you feel ready to party.

Many parts of the book read like a travelogue or an article in a lifestyle magazine. (Watching fireworks, or going to the London Eye, strolling through the Tate gallery, having mulled wine in a pub, etc. etc.)

Some bits of the story like Melissa confronting her father in a lingerie shop are a tad theatrical, but her fuzzy relationship with her flatmate is sweet. Her romance with Jonathan is trite, but her methodical strategy of giving challenged men a workover is funny. The part I liked best was when the lines between Melissa and Honey started blurring, and Honey started taking over even when the blond wig was off.

There are times when one enjoys such books…even though they come reviewed by Cosmopolitan as ‘a tasty read for the beach.’

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