I suppose I should come clean right at the start and say that while I'm a HUGE fan of Catherine Sanderson, I've always been a bit, well, lukewarm (my italics) about her Petite Anglaise blog persona. Not that there's anything wrong with PA -- it's well-crafted, thoughtful, nicely observed. But it's like those ads for Vivelle Dop extra-strong hair gel - while its success fills me with admiration and wonder (Can you really get your hair to stick straight up like that? Even while driving a go-kart? How come I don't know anyone with hair like that?) I know, deep down, that I'm not the target audience. If there were any doubt, a quick rummage through her comments box would give me all the proof I needed. Plus sometimes it's quite hard for me to tally the person I know with her alter ego. So while I couldn't wait to read my friend's book, I was a teensy bit worried how much PA, the queen of passive-aggressive, I'd be able to take. I was surprised. I absolutely loved the opening chapters. They're engaging, funny, well-paced, pull you right in. And, as always -- and this is one of the things I've always admired about Cath's writing -- she's got the "voice" down pat, you BELIEVE the narrator right from the start. Which is more difficult to pull off than you'd think. OK, as seems to be the trend in modern light fiction, there's a tendency to try and fit two adjectives to every noun that irritates me -- how little imagination do you think I have? -- but I blame that on the editor. I would happily read a whole volume of these year-abroad memories, they have such a real flavour of Paris and France. But don't let your guard down, dear reader, because after 100 pages or so, the PA so many have bookmarked and loved rears her head with a vengeance as we get to the break-up with Mr. Frog. I've never met the real Mr. Frog, but for me, he is the hero of this book. I suspect that goes for Cath too, given that she's dedicated it to him. He is, quite simply, the most sympathetic character in the whole thing. Love him and his worn velour top, rainbow jumper and duffel. In different circumstances, I'd suggest he start his own blog. I'd read it. I realise that the split is the bit that most readers will be waiting for -- it is, after all, car-crash tv time. Watch PA go to the wall!! Witness unseemly wrangling over the exercise bike!! But I just found it sad and slightly distressing. Would you really end an 8-year relationship, wait for your (now ex-)partner to storm out, switch on the computer and blog about it? And -- most disturbingly -- CHECK YOUR STATS in front of them the next morning? That way, surely, madness lies. I've no idea whether it's true or not, but I'm not very comfortable with it. Then again, if she hadn't bared all, I guess I wouldn't be reading a nice soft-cover version of Petite Anglaise with the famous Penguin logo on the spine. Ho-hum. Anyway, from that point on, the beast is a little harder for me to handle. It's still nicely written but, as a regular reader of the blog, I already know how things work out with so-wet-I'd-better-mop-the-floor Jim and his corduroy jacket. And "Toby" too. Obviously that isn't going to be the case for most people who buy the book but, as far as I was concerned, inevitably the tension dipped. On a blog, you can keep the thing afloat because no-one knows what's going to happen until you decide to post again. In a book, they just have to keep turning the pages, so you need other tricks to keep the suspense going and, for me, they were missing here, as was any real sense of what was driving everyone, what their motivation really was. A bit of that would have perked it up, methinks. I did like the end though, there's a nice "framing" effect with the last couple of chapters that rounds everything off nicely. So that's my two penn'orth. Did I enjoy it? Yes, I did. Not just because it's my friend's work and I know how much of herself she's put into it, but also because I think it's just the first step and there are few things I like more than being in at the start. Those early chapters show a comic touch that a) is much closer to the Cath I know than PA and b) convince me she'll be able to move past the blogger-turned-writer label to keep us entertained a long time after we've forgotten all about Petite Anglaise.
Note to publishers: I have been working on a proposal for my own book - "Petit Anglais, In Paris, Incontinent, In the Metro" - about an ageing Englishman's struggle to cope with an embarrassing personal problem on public transport. Manuscript available on request.