The Little Lady Agency
by Hester Browne
(Pocket, $23, G) ISBN 1-4165-1492-9
****
The feminist in me might recoil at the plot, but the reviewer in me has to admit that The Little Lady Agency is a charming debut novel, brimming with wit, heart and interesting characters. Our heroine Melissa Romney-Jones is organized and competent, but she hasn’t been able to build a successful career, a fact that her overbearing father is only too happy to point out. After being “made redundant” from her most recent position at a real estate office, Melissa impetuously decides to strike out on her own, utilizing the underrated social and party planning skills that she’s developed as the daughter of a Member of Parliament. Surely there are men out there who need help buying presents for their secretaries, throwing cocktail parties and finding a wardrobe that doesn’t make them look like slobs. And if they need a discreet date for a party who can make polite social chitchat, Melissa will be only too happy to fill in.  

Melissa is concerned that her father would disapprove if he knew of her latest venture; given his own scandal-ridden career, the last thing he needs is another target for constituent gossip. Besides, Melissa wants to keep her personal and professional lives separate. And so the Little Lady Agency, run by “Honey Blennerhesket” is born, with a little help from a blonde wig, new clothes and a fresh, confident attitude. Melissa finds that business is booming; there are indeed an unlimited supply of clueless men who need her help. Once she dons Honey’s wig she is free to be flirtatious, charming and assertive – all the traits that brown-haired, insecure Melissa lacked. But when a handsome American businessman from Melissa’s former office starts hiring Honey as his date more and more often, Melissa realizes that she’s made the fatal error of falling for one of her clients. Too bad he is enamored of Honey, when the Melissa underneath is so dull. Too bad he clearly wants to keep business and pleasure distinct…or does he? If Melissa ever takes off the blonde wig, will she still find the Honey inside her?  

Let’s dispense with the feminist caveat right away. Part of me was horrified that I was enjoying a book that celebrates a 1950s role for women as social organizers for hapless workaholic men. Shouldn’t men be able to buy their own presents in the 21st century? Okay, rant over. Whether it’s politically correct or not, The Little Lady Agency hits all the right notes, with wry humor and a heroine who doesn’t quite realize her own power. Although this is nominally a romance, the best scenes show Melissa interacting with her regular clients – providing wardrobe coaching, exorcising an unwanted, clinging girlfriend or defending her “date” against bullying coworkers at an office party. Watching Melissa slowly develop confidence in herself, as Honey becomes less and less of a separate personality, is also rewarding, especially given the hideous family she was born into.  

And what a mess of a family! Melissa’s father, Martin, is one of the most odious characters I’ve encountered in this genre – an arrogant, selfish, dishonest, unfaithful snake who belittles and browbeats Melissa. Surprisingly, he is mostly played for laughs and Melissa is never allowed to wallow in self-pity over the lack of love and support she received from him, her distracted, materialistic socialite mother, and her two self-centered ditsy sisters.  

The novel is also notable for its unconventional, complex relationship between Melissa and her flat-mate Nelson. He’s not gay, and he’s not the answer to her romantic prayers either, but he serves a very important role in her life. In fact, he’s arguably more interesting than Jonathan Riley, the American who can’t get enough of Honey’s services. While the author provides Jonathan with a tragic romantic background and a motivation for his brusque, workaholic tendencies, the fact remains that he, like all of the other men in the book, is looking for a Little Lady to take care of many tasks that he could and should do for himself. Still, I loved the way Melissa/Honey tried to cure him of his annoying habit of snapping and pointing “you got it” in that cocky, American manner. And he does rise to the occasion at the novel’s climax, helping Melissa stand up to her father when he denigrates everything she has accomplished.  

The story’s pace slows down a little too much towards the end, and it really shouldn’t take a sledgehammer to get Melissa to realize that she doesn’t have to hide underneath Honey’s blonde locks to be attractive to men. But all in all, The Little Lady Agency is a well-plotted romp with memorable characters and a fairy-tale happy ending. Let’s hope rookie author Hester Browne has more magic up her sleeve in future releases.  

--Susan Scribner


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