Dial Press, 2017
Katie Brenner has left her father’s Somerset farm and followed her lifelong dream to London, where she has become a research associate at Cooper Clemmow, a prestigious branding agency. To fit into her glamorous surroundings, she has rebranded herself as “Cat,” a cool 20-something with straightened hair, glasses, a London accent, and an Instagram collection of all the trendy cafes and restaurants she has visited. Full disclosure (as she puts it): she can’t afford even a cup of cocoa at the trendy cafes, and her miserable shared flat is “edgy” in the sense that it’s so far out on London’s edges that she has an 80-minute commute. As a newcomer at Cooper Clemmow, she is relegated to unrewarding jobs in an office run by Demeter Farlowe, an ultra-demanding woman universally hated by her staff. But Katie ignores reality’s deficiencies. She firmly looks ahead to a time when she can have a perfect life like Demeter’s: prestigious job, designer clothes, beautiful house, lovely family … and, according to office gossip, a handsome lover in Alex, one of the agency’s top bosses. Shame, that last. Before Katie learned who Alex was, she’d enjoyed his company, and she’d sometimes thought he fancied her.
Gradually, some of Katie’s ideas gain attention. But one day, Demeter fires her – for no reason, it seems – and poverty compels Katie to go back to Somerset. Not wanting to admit failure to her beloved father, she rebrands the truth, telling him and her stepmother that she’s been given a “sabbatical” from her job and is using it to help them start their glamping (glamorous camping) business. Here, she’s in her element: under her guidance, the farm comes to offer everything upscale Londoners consider the essence of Country Life: organic local food, sustainable agriculture, solar panels, rural crafts, homemade jam, (not to mention yurts, 400-thread-count sheets, and outside showers). The brochure Katie has designed attracts the notice of The Guardian, making the farm a sought-after country experience. And who should turn up there but Demeter, her family … and Alex.
Like all Kinsella’s books, this one is filled with quintessentially English detail – and English wit, for Katie’s voice, at once self-aware, perceptive, and insecure, has a cutting edge easily recognized from English journalism. The constant contrast of image/branding and reality/life’s difficulties could result in biting satire, but Kinsella is kind to her characters even when she engages in slapstick portrayals of their weaknesses. Her general attitude toward city folks’ image of country life is one of “Lord, what fools these mortals be.” Her attitude toward the real damage of office politics, and her perceptive portrayal of the difficulties of family life at all cultural levels, however, is serious. While the reader is always sure that all difficulties will be straightened out in the fifth act, the conclusion is surprisingly non-pastoral -- and it’s impossible not to cheer for the way Katie’s determination enables her to craft a life that is, if not perfect, rewarding.
Laura Stevenson lives in Wilmington and her most recent novels, “Return in Kind” and “Liar from Vermont,” are both set on Boyd Hill Road.