19/07/2005

Country Wives

I'm a little ambivalent about Rebecca Shaw's novels. I've read some of her Turnham Malpas series of vllage novels, but this is the first I've picked up in her Barleybridge series about a busy vet's practice. Apparently it's the second of four (so far); the first is called A Country Affair.

This book was fine as a stand-alone read, although probably some things would have been clearer had I read the first book beforehand. There seemed to be rather a large cast - several vets, nurses and receptionists - although there was a helpful list at the front. This particular novel focuses on Dan, a newly arrived temporary vet who is excellent at his work, but speaks his mind and expects others to work as hard as he does. Thus he quickly finds himself disliked.

At the same time there are many tensions in an almost soap opera number from the rest of the staff. Several of them appear to have shaky marriages or other problems at home, and these naturally impinge on their daily lives. I found the plot and many subplots interesting, but rather too fast for my liking: in only a little over 250 pages there was a vast amount of action which could easily have filled a novel twice as long.

But as well as feeling that a lot was missing, I found the writing style a bit irritating at times. There was a lot of informal English, and some rather careless editing. Perhaps that's what happens when an author becomes well-known: her books will sell anyway, so there's no point tidying up strange sentences or making the language consistent. I realise this does happen in a lot of modern books, but it's usually the 'chick-lit' variety, and this story had the potential to be something more. James Herriot it's not - by a long chalk - but it could still have been a well-characterised, well-written insight into life in a large country vet practice. Unfortunately, it wasn't.

Still, I kept reading and will probably look out for others in the series at second-hand shops, because I found myself becoming quite interested in some of the characters. Dan was well-written, if a bit stereotyped, and the senior partner Mungo was quite believable along with his charming wife. The young student Kate who also took a fairly major role had a lot of potential. Other characters were rather flat, and some plot developments didn't really work: people seemed to change their view about Dan with no real reason, for instance. The end of the book also felt very rushed and - more significantly - simply produced an answer to a problem out of the blue, rather than anybody having to work for it.

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