During a fight Dan Baxter commits an unpardonable wrong: he compares his girlfriend, Jo Hurst, to her mother. Jo moves out without telling him why, believing he’ll track her down, apologize, and beg her to come back. He doesn’t. Then Dan’s upstairs neighbor, Libby, tells Jo that Dan has a new hot-and-heavy girlfriend. Dan wants Jo back, but he hasn’t gone after her because his upstairs neighbor, Libby, says she’s got a new man. I trust you see the pattern here.
Jo, longing for some contact with Dan even though it’s over between them, sets up a Hotmail account using the pseudonym Sarah Daly, and sends him an e-mail. Dan is a music journalist, so Jo poses as someone who’s interested in his books. Soon an increasingly intimate e-mail relationship develops between Dan and “Sarah.” Meanwhile, the company Jo works for goes bankrupt and she finds herself waiting tables at an Italian restaurant and considering a relationship with its hunky owner Marco. And Dan must fend off the increasingly aggressive attentions of Libby.
That’s the main plot thread, but it’s far from the only one. There is an extremely large secondary cast and there are story arcs involving almost all of them: Jo’s parents and their relationships; Jo’s old school nemesis Nicola and her engagement; Jo’s potential boss Sid, his entire family, and his relationship; Marco’s mother Giovanna and her painful past; Dan’s downstairs neighbor Aisling and her relationship; and lots of details about Libby and her machinations. Chapters told from Jo’s first-person point of view alternate with several sections in third person, detailing the lives of everyone else. All these story lines tend to cross and converge, forming a gossipy soap-opera-like web that is really quite interesting, if you like soap operas (as I do).
This is all rather fun. The book has an easy, natural humor that comes from good characterizations and a wry tone, rather than from one-liners and gags. However, the book is not exactly taut. The technique of cutting Jo’s chapters with chapters telling us about everyone else kills any suspense there might have been. It can be a little annoying to have to spend 75 pages with Sid and Aisling and Giovanna and Nicola when you really just want to know what’s going to happen with Jo and Dan.
Jo is a nice heroine. She obviously has a streak of deceptiveness in her, but she’s not as annoying as some of her chick lit fellows. She actually has a job that she’s very good at, and while she likes to party, she doesn’t indulge in a lot of self-pitying bouts of drinking. Jo’s story arc is all about her realizing the horrible mistakes she’s made, and vowing to do better. She doesn’t always succeed, but she definitely matures and grows throughout the course of this book without losing her sense of humor. She’s an entertaining narrator and very good company.
I sort of thought she’d misdiagnosed her problem, though. She’s afraid that she’s turning into a manipulative, judgmental snob like her mother whereas I thought she was criminally lacking in communication skills. In the entire 314 pages of this novel, from beginning to end, she never has a single conversation with Dan. Not one (unless, of course, you count the e-mails between Dan and Jo’s alter-ego Sarah). Dan and Jo learn a lot about each other, but it’s via the gossip network rather than by actually speaking to one another. By the time of the book’s conclusion, Jo is convinced that she will never be like her mother. I wanted to say to her, “Yes, but have you learned how to talk?”
Guilty Feet is a fun book (and yes, the title is a reference to “Careless Whispers” by Wham). It has its flaws, but none of them seriously counteracted the enjoyment it gave me. If you are in the mood for an easy, amusing, charming read, you could do far worse.