Airs and Graces (by Erica James)

I had never heard of Erica James until Christmas 1999, when my husband bought this book for me. He thought it my kind of book, just based on the cover and the blurb on the back - and he was right. It started my quest to collect all the books by this author; having succeeded, at least so far, I've decided to re-read them.

It was in March 2000 when I first read 'Airs and Graces', with no idea what to expect. Eight and a half years later, I'd entirely forgotten what the book was about. The story opens with Ellen and her friend Hermione meeting in a tea shop. Hermione is clearly something of a dreamer, and Ellen more practical, but she is also generous. A girl is begging outside the shop, and Ellen not only gives her a pound coin - worth rather more even eight years ago than it is now - she also buys her something to eat.

As the friends are driving home, they see the girl trying to hitch a lift... and so, reluctantly, Jo-jo enters their lives. She's not a typical beggar: she has a lot of pride, but has run away from home. She likes to cook and clean, and soon edges her way into both Ellen and Hermione's hearts.

Meanwhile Ellen, whose husband Roger left her some time before the story starts, is trying to decide whether to marry the dull but wealthy Duncan. She runs a dried flower shop and lives in a little cottage, but would really like to stop having to work so hard, and to have plenty of money. At the same time, Hermione, who is rather older, needs to consider whether to stay in her large and draughty house, or move somewhere more convenient.

Then there are Hermione's neighbours, Susie and the strangely named Bonkers, who have employed Hermione's nephew Matthew to paint a mural for them. And Matthew is rather attracted to Ellen...

So there are several subplots nicely interwoven in this novel, and some good characterisation. I did like the eccentric Hermione, and could empathise with Ellen in her desire for an easier life. Jo-jo is an interesting creation too, and a good catalyst for some of the other plot-lines.

 I couldn't quite see and feel the people, but I certainly felt I was beginning to get to know them, even if some - such as Duncan's mother, and Bonkers - are more one-dimensional caricatures.

Good light reading which I enjoyed thoroughly on the second read. I will probably read it again in another eight or nine years, if I remember. Still in print in both UK and USA.

Review copyright Sue's Book Reviews, 21st September 2008

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