Wednesday, March 3, 2010

a guilty pleasure

Niki Bruce reviews the latest novel from PS, I Love You author, Cecelia Ahern.

I HAVE to admit I'm not generally a lover of romance novels, or 'chick lit', or popular reads and, as such, tend to shy away from anything that's been talked about on Oprah or given a Woman's Weekly stamp of approval.

However, there is one author who I will forgive these tendencies – Cecelia Ahern, irish author of classic tear-jerkers like PS, I Love You (yes, the one that's been made into a film) and Where Rainbows End.

Even more annoyingly, Ms Ahern is also a former pop singer, rather pretty, has a sister married to a member of Westlife and is the daughter of a politician. So, in addition to being a writer of chick lit, I should despise her for her celeb status and refuse to read her books.

Problem is, Ahern's work is ridiculously good, particularly for her age. Her first novel, the aforementioned PS, I Love You, was number one in Ireland for 19 weeks, number one in the UK, US, Germany and even Holland. And she was only 21 when she wrote it!

Ahern manages to be romantic without being soppy; she has a modern – and obviously young – perspective of love and relationships, which has just as obviously managed to grab the zeitgeist and people's hard-earned cash.

In The Book of Tomorrow, Ahern's latest work, the central character is a young woman, Tamara Goodwin, who has been taken away from all she knows and dropped into rural Ireland with an odd aunt, a tumble-down castle and an annoyingly cheerful nun while her mother vegetates and appears to need some serious medication.

So far; so tear-jerker, right?

Not so. Tamara is horrible. She's a selfish, self-absorbed, arrogant rich-bitch girl-child who sees nothing wrong in spending the average person's weekly wage on a handbag. So, she's not a particularly sympathetic character, despite the fact that her father's just died and left Tamara and her mother destitute.

After all, it's not like they're out on the streets of Dublin, her aunt and uncle have taken them in and seem to be doing everything they can to help Tamara while her mother has a nervous breakdown in the Irish countryside.
Still, Ahern cleverly allows the reader to follow Tamara's inner monologue as she realises that she's in need of a heart and that she is really concerned about her mother's condition.
As Tamara begins to come to terms with her new life, she discovers a mysterious book – a book that will help her not only work out what's going on with her mother, but will also shed some light on a past that Tamara knows nothing about.

Plot spoiler coming up, so if you are planing to read The Book of Tomorrow, skip to the next paragraph. The book of the title is Ahern's touch of magic realism – much like the love letters of PS, I Love You, the book allows the character to move forward and, somewhat similarly, gives shape to the narrative. Without the book offering Tamara different versions of the future, she could just as easily have ended up as a dead-end character going nowhere. The trope is not particularly new, but it is cleverly handled and adds another dimension to what could have been a lack-luster 'coming of age' tale.

Right; so, the book is central to the overall plot, adding another layer of information to the novel which allows both the reader and Tamara to ask questions that move the plot along.

Again, like PS, I Love You, Ahern has managed to create characters that are both realistic and interesting. The plot twists about a bit and the supporting character's all come into their own. There is the obligitory family secret to unearth, a love interest, an embarrassing episode and some crazy people – just like everyone's life, right?

But what makes Ahern stand out from the crowd of chick lit novels is her thoroughly modern sensibility, a lovely turn of phrase and a cheeky sense of humour. You also get the impression that Ahern herself was either just like Tamara or knows girls exactly the same. There's a hint of 'insider story' in The Book of Tomorrow; particularly in the descriptions of clothes, cars, houses and lifestyles.

Still, even if Ahern comes from the same sort of privileged background, she just as obviously has grown up and away from the superficiality of celebrity; just as Tamara grows up and discovers there's more to life than a flash handbag.

The Book of Tomorrow is a guilty secret, I feel prepared to own up to. It's chick lit with life and humour and a great choice for your holiday read.

The Book of Tomorrow by Cecelia Ahern is published by HarperCollins and is available from good book stores and online.

First published in The Straits Times blogs on October 13, 2009



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