- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 18, 2003

HIGHLAND FLING

By Katie Fforde

St. Martin’s Press, $24.95, 326 pages

REVIEWED BY STEPHANIE TAYLOR

The murky Scottish highlands provide a charming setting for romance, as London Times’ best-selling novelist Katie Fforde moves her latest novel from England to the mountains of Scotland in “Highland Fling.”

Genevieve (Jenny) Porter is a 27-year-old virtual assistant, i.e., glorified secretary, who has been assigned by one of her top-paying clients to survey a failing windmill in which he has invested. So she packs up her clothes and drives 700 miles north, just in time for the beginning of a Scottish winter. When she arrives, she finds herself immersed in the convoluted personal and financial lives of an old Scottish family: the snobbish, demanding mother; the brow-beaten, timid eldest daughter; the charming, irresponsible middle son; and the rogue youngest son and his garrulous, lively wife.

Living at the very manor which may be repossessed if the windmill proves financially unviable, Jenny is surrounded by the Dalmain family’s loves and losses, the ghosts of their pasts and their secret ambitions for their futures.

Although her client simply wants an accountant’s analysis of the books, Jenny quickly embarks on a mission to rescue the windmill, worried about the potential impact on the local community if one of the sole sources of income went belly-up. Utilizing all her creativity, as well as (conveniently) hidden skills of the Dalmain family members, she sets her mind to transforming the company from a cheaply-made woolens manufacturer to a couture design firm that produces luxury fabrics.

But no work of literature aimed so obviously at a female audience would be complete without the requisitory romantic relationship. Although she has a faithful, if dull, boyfriend in England, Jenny meets Ross Grant, a mysterious stranger who causes her to reconsider her passionless, live-in relationship back home.

The novel is a delightful read, albeit definitely not a thought-provoking one. Her characters are engaging, but her plot is thoroughly predictable and a bit contrived. There is enough action (and romantic tension) to make the book a page-turner, but upon doing so, the reader can only exclaim, “I knew it.”

In the current crush of novels known as “chick lit,” the author provides a refreshing alternative for the female reader. In a definite departure from the stereotypically glamorous life of the usual heroine, Jenny Porter does not work in the world of publishing, television or public relations; and she does not once reference Manolos or any other type of designer shoes. She has not built a public life upon her too-loud confessions that she is a satisfied career woman, nor a fantasy life in which she is wooed by the right combination of Fabio and Mr. Darcy. Jenny is practical, level-headed and quietly well-liked — the quintessential, non-threatening girl-next-door. In short, she is relatable.

Far away from home, Jenny also has the opportunity to develop her abilities in areas where she never knew she had them. She plays cupid, works a fast-food counter and transforms herself from secretary to textile business entrepreneur. And for the first time in her life, she sizzles with passion in the embrace of a man’s arms. Her first true experience of lusting after the unknown makes her realize that, no matter the outcome of this new fling, she will most definitely bid adieu to her old boyfriend, Henry, upon her return home.

Matters become slightly more complicated, however, when business beckons Henry to Scotland, and he also becomes a guest of the Dalmain household. And when Jenny realizes that her mysterious new flame is none-other than the anonymous client who sent her to Scotland in the first place — well, frustrations abound.

But a good woman always gets her man, and in the world of fiction at least, a woman usually is rewarded for her decision to leave an unsatisfying relationship with a much more interesting replacement. Prince Charming, in a thoroughly overused plot twist, rescues Jenny when she hikes too high up on the mountains. The novel ends — where else? — with Ross Grant down on one knee.

We don’t indulge in books like “Highland Fling” to be challenged intellectually or to ponder the arguments concerning the existence of evil; no, we read books like “Highland Fling” because whether or not our own lives have a fairy-tale ending, we want to live vicariously through someone else who’s life does. And Jenny Porter’s life provides the perfect such opportunity.

“Highland Fling” is just that — a light fling of a read, and a breezy, entertaining companion on a cold winter night.

Stephanie Taylor is letters editor for The Washington Times.

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