The Little Lady Agency

 
Little Lady, Big Apple
by Hester Browne
(Pocket Books, $23, PG) ISBN 1-4165-1493-7
****
Hester Browne’s debut novel, The Little Lady Agency, was one of the most pleasant surprises of 2006 – a charming piece of Brit Chick Lit notable for its wry humor and intriguing premise.  The Little Lady herself, Melissa Romney-Jones, is back for more adventures in Little Lady, Big Apple, but the novelty of Melissa’s singular business is gone, and the charm is diluted somewhat when the heroine travels to our fair American shores.  However, all in all, it isn’t a bad sophomore effort.   

Melissa established the Little Lady Agency to provide assistance to hapless British males with daunting tasks such as shopping for their girlfriends, buying the right suit, standing up to their meddling grandmothers – in short, everything a bachelor needs, with the notable exceptions of laundry and sex.  Her alter ego for the business is named “Honey Blennerhesket,” although Melissa no longer dons Honey’s blonde wig or goes on faux dates in her persona.  These changes came about at the request of her handsome American boyfriend, Jonathan Riley, who met Melissa when he became one of her first (and most special) clients.   

Things are going swimmingly well on every front until Melissa is imperiously summoned home by her overbearing father.  There she learns that her sister Allegra has left her husband Lars, who has been implicated by the Swedish authorities in an international smuggling ring.  Her father insists that Melissa hire lazy, self-centered Allegra to help with the Agency.  Then Melissa’s flatmate Nelson announces he is going sailing for three months and their apartment will be uninhabitable during his absence due to extensive renovations.  So when Jonathan announces he has landed a major promotion that will require him to spend more time back in the States, and asks Melissa to come with him, it seems like an ideal solution to numerous problems, as long as she can find a way to keep the Agency running in her absence.   

Once in New York, Melissa is thrilled by the myriad new shopping and eating opportunities.  But perils await as well.  Reminders of Jonathan’s ex-wife Cindy are everywhere, threatening Melissa’s precarious self-esteem.  Jonathan is affectionate but always busy, and he doesn’t understand why Melissa misses her Agency clients so much when she could be just as happy using her organizational skills to plan baby showers for his female friends.  Then Melissa is presented with a new male candidate for her services – Godric Ponsonby, a rising British actor with a terrible attitude problem who also had a brief but memorable snogging encounter with our heroine twelve years ago.  Taking care of “Oh-Godric” might be professionally satisfying, but it could also spell the end of her relationship with the jealous, mistrustful Jonathan.   

Throughout the novel, Melissa looks wistfully at her blonde wig and longs for the days she could don it in full “Honey” mode.  The reader misses it as well.  Away from her native England and bereft of her hilariously clueless male clients, Melissa isn’t quite as entertaining.  There are a few good scenes, such as Melissa impersonating a snooty British governess to help a friend secure her young daughter’s acceptance into a prestigious private school.  However, much of the humor is of the forced, wacky variety instead of the natural wit of the first Little Lady novel.   

Nelson is sorely missed as well, although he makes the most of his few appearances via transatlantic phone calls, and I even missed Melissa’s hideous father Martin, who is reduced to cameo roles at the beginning and end of the book.  I suspect that Hester Browne missed her British characters as well, since she chooses to import one as Melissa’s primary new client.   

It’s easy to root for the sweet, well-intentioned Melissa, who appears to be the only member of her family that isn’t completely bonkers, but sometimes her naiveté strains credibility, such as when she confuses the Mile High Club with Frequent Flyer Miles, to the dismay of a lecherous airplane seatmate.  And while Jonathan is loving, tender and surprisingly open about his feelings, but he can be patronizing as well, and Melissa tolerates his workaholic behavior far longer than any red-blooded American woman would do.   

The third book in the series, Little Lady and the Prince, will be released in Britain in Fall 2007 and I suspect the American release will soon follow.  Time will tell if Hester Browne can keep the series fresh or if it will devolve into redundant absurdity like the Shopaholic books.  

--Susan Scribner


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