30/12/2008

A Sense of Belonging (by Erica James)

I've been reading and enjoying novels by Erica James for about ten years now. She writes light women's fiction - perhaps it could even be termed 'chick-lit', although her novels seem to appeal more to the middle-aged than the young.

I first read 'A Sense of Belonging' in 2000, and had entirely forgotten what it was about, so it felt like a good time to re-read. It's the story of a small community that develops when people move into some new houses on a redeveloped site in the countryside. It's a character-driven novel, which focuses on the lives of these diverse households.

First there are Tony and Amanda, the only married couple and a rather ill-assorted one. Tony's first wife died in an accident, and he married Amanda to give his daughter Hattie a mother. Unfortunately, Amanda is a social-climbing snob who manages to get on everyone's nerves.

Then there are Kate and Alec, an unmarried but apparently very compatible couple. Alec is about twenty years older than Kate, but deeply in love with her. The only fly in their marital ointment is Melissa, Alec's glamorous ex-wife, who he still works with. Then there's the problem that Kate would really like a baby, whereas Alec already has a grown-up daughter and even a grandson.

The main character of the book, however, is Jessica. She's a writer who we first meet in Corfu, on the point where she finishes her current novel, and says her goodbyes. She is leaving the philandering man she has been living with, and returning to the UK to keep an eye on her aging mother. Unfortunately, her mother, Anna, is fiercely independent and has no wish to have her daughter checking up on her.

And finally, there's Josh. Nobody knows much about Josh at first. He keeps himself to himself, and appears either shy or rather rude. Then he comes to Jessica's rescue, and finds himself thrown into the life of the community, whether he likes it or not. Josh has a secret which he doesn't want to talk about, and finds himself deeper and deeper in difficulties as time goes by.

Erica James has quite a gift of characterisation; a day after finishing this novel, I can still remember the names of most of the minor characters as well as the main protagonists, and many of the subplots which weave together nicely in this pleasant book. I read it at a busy time, just an hour or so in the evenings, and found it relaxing and enjoyable, but it wasn't so gripping that I couldn't put it down.

Sometimes when there are several characters I find it hard to remember who is whom, particularly if I read a book over four or five days, but I had no such trouble with 'A Sense of Belonging'. They all felt rounded and real (if a little caricatured at times).

The ending was mostly satisfactory, albeit somewhat predictable, but then I don't like novels to end with nasty shocks. The threads were nicely tidied up - some of them perhaps a little too tidily - and my only slight regret was that Oscar, Alec's rather delightful grandson, appeared to lose out on all counts.

All in all, recommended to anyone who enjoys light, character-driven women's novels. Still in print in both the UK and USA.

Review copyright Sue's Book Reviews, 30th December 2008

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