Artistic License

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Wild Designs

Highland Fling by Katie Fforde
(St. Martin’s, $24.95, PG) ISBN 0-312-31768-9
  I really hate to give up on an author who was once so promising, but I can no longer ignore the inescapable fact that Katie Fforde has fallen into a rut. The plots of her last few novels have sounded exactly alike – only the characters’ names and the settings have been changed – and Highland Fling is just more of the same. Combine that with a particularly annoying heroine and a groaner of a Big Misunderstanding , and I conclude sadly that it’s time for me to leave this author’s books behind.  

As usual, Fforde takes a well-intentioned, slightly dithering heroine and places her in an unfamiliar situation. Jenny Porter has a fledgling business as a Virtual Assistant, and she is glad to use work as an excuse to take a break from her annoying boyfriend Henry. Soon she’s on her way to the Scottish Highlands to check out a textile mill that is owned by her client, Mr. M.R. Grant-Dempsey. With the sneaking suspicion that the Dalmain mill is on its last legs, Jenny presumes that Grant-Dempsey wants her to handle the unpleasant task of firing its workers and closing the site down. But once Jenny meets the Dalmain family and the mill employees, she finds she can’t act like a cold-blooded, fiscally-minded businessperson. Instead, she embarks on a risky plan to save the mill.  

Jenny has the support of the mill workers, but the involvement of the Dalmain family itself is a mixed blessing. Oldest son and mill manager Phillip is charming but feckless, daughter Felicity is a meek agoraphobic and younger son Iain and his outspoken wife Meggie have divorced themselves from the family as much as possible. The Dalmains’ idiosyncrasies can be directly traced to haughty matriarch Lady Dalmain, who acts as if the cold, decaying family home is a majestic castle and that Jenny is her latest loyal subject. Jenny manages to handle all of the Dalmains with remarkable aplomb, but she can’t keep her temper around Ross Grant, a mountain rescue worker who frequents Meggie Dalmain’s portable snack bar (which Jenny has agreed to run while Meggie is recovering from childbirth). She’s infuriated, she’s attracted, she doesn’t know what to do – but when she finds out Ross’ secret, she’s out for his blood.  

I have to admit that the first part of the novel, with its rousing “let’s pull together and save the mill!” storyline, is quite charming. Jenny has a talent for motivating people and finding their hidden strengths, so everyone from feisty Maggie to pathetic Felicity have important contributions to make. Jenny, who can’t seem to say no, finds herself playing matchmaker, cook and private detective as well as Virtual Assistant.  

But once the alleged romance between Jenny and Ross takes center stage, the novel falls off a cliff. When Jenny realizes Ross’ real identity, she becomes annoyingly irrational and childish, literally walking off in a snit whenever Ross tries to explain the situation. This leads to a totally unnecessary Big Misunderstanding that is not resolved until the last three pages of the novel, by which point Jenny has demonstrated a total lack of common sense by strolling into a Scottish blizzard and having unprotected sex with Ross while the Misunderstanding is still between them. The last 50 pages of the novel seem dedicated to proving that several months in the Highlands have sucked every last brain cell out of Jenny’s adorable little head.  

Fforde specializes in gruff-bordering-on-surly heroes, and Ross is a prime example. His idea of sexy is kissing Jenny forcefully to shut her up, which he does at regular intervals. When he’s not yelling at her or telling her how silly she is, he’s telling her he loves her, primarily because he thinks she’s beautiful. I’d give their relationship as much chance as a Scottish snowball in Hell.  

I hate to write off Fforde, but there are plenty of other authors such as Marian Keyes, Amanda Colgan, Jane Green and Lisa Jewell who fill my need for Brit Chick Lit without sounding like a bad Mills & Boon novel. Feel free to fling Highland Fling back into the discard pile where it belongs.  

--Susan Scribner

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