Hardly Working by Betsy Burke
(Red Dress Ink, $12.95, PG-13) ISBN 0-373-89542-9
Tired of reading another story about an upbeat modern woman whose boyfriend problems are almost as annoying as her obsession with shoes? Then, Hardly Working may well be the book for you. Though it works with many of the usual themes, issues and twists of chick lit, its setting, laidback heroine and environmental concerns are refreshingly different.

Dinah Nichols manages public relations for the Vancouver branch of Green World International, a non-profit organization that works to make the world a greener and cleaner place. She and her (primarily) sister colleagues spend most of their time slacking off and surfing the Internet. With the arrival of a new CEO, Ian Trutch, they realize they have to shape up or ship out. Given his looks, they prefer the former.

As attracted to Ian as the others are, Dinah suspects a soul of lead hides beneath the body of gold. What better way to find out than to sleep with the enemy? After all, despite being labeled a "man-eater" by the office virgin, she hasn't had too much experience with men.

It isn't long before Dinah realizes how insensitive Ian is to women's feelings, environmental issues and employee rights. He forces Dinah and her colleagues to give up their extended lunch breaks, but spends outrageous amounts of company money to redecorate his office. Not only is he completely unaware of how land development is destroying the Pacific coast, he is also in cahoots with shady politicians. In fact, Ian is such an obvious figure of a greedy corporate golden boy that I wonder how a joint like Green World International hired him in the first place and why they weren't on to him faster than Dinah. Unfortunately, these questions ultimately undermine a major plot premise.

Ian is not the only person Dinah investigates. She is also curious about the gorgeous man next door - even if she believes he is gay and is put off by the goats (yes, goats) he keeps in his living room. When he rescues her from a cougar attack in her backyard (uh huh, cougar), she's ready to overlook anything as long as it doesn't hurt his sometime live-in friend Kevin. She also wants to know more about her tango-dancing father, whose identity has been kept a secret by her self-possessed mother, an internationally known marine mammal specialist.

Dinah's quest for her personal identity does not directly overlap with either her romantic pursuits or her professional ones. While it is sometimes difficult to know which plot thread we are following, they all feed into the proactive, conscientious and socially involved person she becomes.

The three plots also result in a very large cast of secondary characters. I was amazed to see even the most minor and insignificant characters show depth and grow in the course of the novel, but the book would have been sharper if less populated. I was also disappointed with the recourse to a standard plot twist, even if it does have a gender-bending touch: the Other Woman is, in this case, the Other Man.

Betsy Burke should be lauded for mentioning environmental issues without getting on a soap-box. It is part of what makes Hardly Working an agreeable departure from the far-too-frequent pontifications on fat, fashion and men.

--Mary Benn

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