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The Real Katie Lavender by Erica James

If Erica James has carved out a niche for herself in the cluttered world of light romance fiction, it is one in which vile weather never descends, there is no such thing as a traffic jam, and the laundry is done by little elves who come in the night. Reading one of her books is like escaping into such a world – the intellectual equivalent of sinking into a warm bath clutching a glass of wine after a very long day.

In this sense, there is little to distinguish her latest, The Real Katie Lavender, from 2010’s The Queen of New Beginnings or the 13 novels that preceded them. Where James flexes her imagination most is in the set-up: Katie Lavender is a 30-year-old woman who in the opening pages is sacked unceremoniously from her job in media production. She takes this on the chin, largely because she knows real loss. Three years ago, her father died abruptly from septicaemia caused by food poisoning (who knew to be afraid of that?), and it is one year since the death of her mother.

Katie, an only child, was close to her parents and is bereft – but this being the type of story it is, James steers delicately away from an analysis of grief and towards Katie’s irreverent best friends Tess and Zac and, most usefully, towards a letter from a lawyer’s office summoning her for a meeting.

Perplexed, she arrives to be informed of the truth about her parentage. She is not her father’s biological daughter but the product of a brief affair during her parents’ marriage. Her father forgave her mother and raised Katie as his own. Her natural father is apparently a man both of conscience and some standing, for he has endowed her, she now learns, with a trust fund worth more than £750,000.

Her curiosity piqued, she goes in search of Stirling Nightingale, and in the most ludicrous of a series of implausible positionings – this is where the wine comes in handy – stages her first meeting with him by posing as a waitress at the 90th birthday celebration for his mother, Cecily. There she also encounters his two grown children with Gina, his wife of 34 years, and meets her obnoxious, egotistical half-brother (Rosco, 32), and her pregnant, self-absorbed, 29-year-old half-sister Scarlet.

On the same occasion, Stirling receives a visit from the police with the news that his brother and business partner Neil has been found dead. The suicide was prompted, it transpires, by events including the embezzlement of money from the firm’s clients and an extramarital affair. Neil’s wife Pen, a gifted gardener with a sweet exterior and a core of steel, is blindsided.

The stage is set for romantic trials and family travails . . . but wait, where’s the love interest? That would be Lloyd, Neil and Pen’s son. (If you’ve deduced that this makes him Katie’s first cousin, you’d be right – but you can be sure Ms James has a solution.)

The Real Katie Lavender is the brightest and most undemanding of chick lit. There are idyllic settings – Pen’s glorious gardens, the majestic Nightingale family home, Lloyd’s cosy love nest – and a clutch of themes that are sufficiently stimulating in the moment to hold attention but not so unsavoury as to be unpleasant reading (infidelity and other garden-variety secrets and lies, troublesome relationships with in-laws). There is nothing to offend a sensitive reader or to please those with exacting literary standards – but the rest of us are comfortably served.

Previously reviewed on Coast FM.

Reviewer: Stephanie Jones


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