Wild Designs by Katie Fforde
(Griffin, $12.95, PG) ISBN 0-312-19032-8
I'm starting to believe that American romance authors could learn something from their British counterparts. I've already added Alexandra Raife to my A-list of contemporary romance authors, and now I've found another Englishwoman whose work is even more promising. Katie Fforde, like Ms. Raife, has a penchant for gentle, character-driven stories with nary an undercover policeman or amnesia victim in sight. Katie Fforde, however, also has a wonderfully dry sense of humor that enlivens and enchants. Furthermore, she managed to make me believe that it is possible to find true love even with a messy home and chubby thighs. I'll admit to being hooked; before I had even finished reading Wild Designs, I ran out to the library to reserve copies of her other two novels.

The heroine of Wild Designs is Althea Farraday, 38-year old divorced mother of three teenaged children, who has just been "made redundant" (isn't that a nicer term than "being laid off"?) at the school where she has served as secretary for many years. Her bossy younger sister thinks Althea should take a clerical job somewhere else, but Althea decides this is her opportunity to start her own garden design business. She has no formal horticultural training, but she does have a knack for the hobby.

Unfortunately, Althea has been practicing her hobby somewhat illegally, in a greenhouse attached to a deserted old house. When someone actually buys the run-down residence, Althea has to ask the new owner for permission to keep her plants there for a while longer. This is how Althea meets Patrick Donahugh, handsome 42-year old architect. Patrick is accompanied by his secretary/girlfriend Topaz, a lithe, young slip of a girl who immediately makes Althea feel old and dumpy.

How Althea manages to fulfill her gardening dreams, support her children, and end up living happily ever after with Patrick is the focus of this delightful book. The supporting characters are well-developed and interesting. Althea is such a real person she's disorganized, her children boss her around, she needs to lose a stone (I think that's about 15 pounds) but she's a good-hearted woman who has a hard time saying no to anyone who needs a favor. There were a few times that I wished she had shown a little more backbone, but she manages to get what she needs in her own gentle way. When it comes to Patrick, however, she does get a little too annoyingly dense. Even when he becomes available, she refuses to get involved because she doesn't want the children to get hurt, despite their obvious approval and Patrick's efforts to convince her that he is more attracted to a mature, seasoned woman than an aerobicizing gold-digger.

Any quibbles with Althea's personality are more than compensated for by Fforde's charming and gently humorous writing style. For example, here's Althea's reflections on Frederick, her ex-husband:

Frederick, who had always been handsome, had improved vastly with age. Tanned, fit and immaculately dressed, the years had taken away the matinee-idol gloss which, with the benefit of hindsight, Althea realized had made him just slightly too much like the plaster groom on top of a wedding cake. Now, she considered, he was almost without flaw, if you could overlook the myriad defects which made up his personality.

I've rated this book PG because there is one love scene, albeit a fairly tame one. There's a lot of emotional and mental foreplay but very little heavy breathing. The novel is refreshingly devoid of unnecessary sex and works just as well as a love story without it.

Wild Designs is Katie Fforde's third novel but only two others are readily available in the US, The Rose Revived, and her latest, recently released, is Stately Pursuits. I can't wait to read them both and then anticipate future cheerful romances from this talented author. She proves that a good romance doesn't need gimmicks only strong writing and realistic characters.

--Susan Scribner

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