The Little Lady Agency
The Little Lady Agency found its way to me in a convoluted fashion. AAR’s Blythe Barnhill included it with a batch of other books, enclosing a note saying, “Thought this one looked fun.” Fun is indeed a good adjective for what we have here: a book about disguises and playing at who you’d like to be instead who you are – and finding true love in the bargain.
Melissa Romney-Jones is a fixer, a do-er. She’s wonderful at organizing other people’s lives, but she rarely gets credit for her hard work. When she’s downsized from Dean & Daniels, an estate agency, she finds herself without funds and willing to do, well, anything. And, after a few false starts, Melissa begins her own business as a personal organizer/temporary girlfriend/Girl Friday to men who have need of someone with contacts and social skills but have no wish for the type of long-term relationship with a woman who would provide those types of services gratis. Donning a blond wig, some serious corsetry, and a stylish vintage wardrobe, Melissa becomes “Honey,” the woman who can do anything. Are you a guy with no fashion sense? Honey will make you over. Need a date to a family do to get your mother off your back? Honey will accompany you and make a good impression. Honey can also sort out your slacking cleaning lady, figure out what to give the ladies in your life for the holidays, or put together a lovely luncheon to make an impression on those who count at work. Honey can do anything.
Not everyone approves of Honey, though. Mel’s best friend and flatmate, Nelson, is generally supportive, but worries that this new career skirts the edge of respectability. And Mel has to keep her new career entirely secret from her father, an MP with a history of his own scandals. Mel isn’t entirely sure she completely approves of Honey herself, but donning the wig allows her a certain freedom to do and say as she likes, to be audaciously sexy with her clothing without worrying about her thighs, and to flirt with a certain client of hers, the sexy American estate agent who was in charge of the takeover of Dean & Daniels…
Melissa/Honey is the kind of heroine rarely found in Romance: the kind who plays by the rules. Many of these rules were drilled into her by her family and by her girls’ finishing schools – what to drink, eat, wear, say, and do in a variety of contexts. These are the kinds of rules most romance heroines rebel against with every ounce of energy they possess. But to Melissa these rules are guidelines for living a classy and well organized life. She knows exactly what shoes to wear with that dress and what to give an employee for Christmas. Using the persona of Honey as a mask-slash-shield and the rules as a guide, Melissa becomes what she can’t be as herself: confident, sexy, confident and straightforward with men, as well as financially successful.
Melissa as Honey is ultra-feminine as well, without becoming the staple Chick Lit fashionista. She knows what shoes to wear with what dress, and she gets a thrill out of donning all of it and trotting around in it too. She is always well groomed. Browne deliberately and repeatedly describes her as 1950’s Old Hollywood and her clothes, outlook, manners, and mores bear that out, but there is also a modern twist to her. The clothes are a tool – a tool she enjoys very much and doesn’t hesitate to use to her advantage – but only a tool. She’s not out to bag a man, she’s out to prove she can be successful on her own using her own talents. Interestingly enough, Browne also compares Melissa to her father, easily the least likable and most manipulative character in the book – the consummate politician. Like Melissa he can slide into a role, but Melissa cares about more than herself and isn’t willing to use people to get what she wants.
The romance between Melissa and her estate agent, Jonathan is well done, although Jonathan remains somewhat inscrutable due to the book’s first-person point of view. Successful, well dressed, and gracious, he is nevertheless occasionally socially awkward in his new job as manager, and Melissa’s friend Gabi, his new employee, actively dislikes him. Apparently another book is forthcoming and will take place on Jonathan’s home turf in New York City. It will be interesting to see what he’s like when he can’t groom a new persona out of whole cloth. What a pair these two make together trying so hard to be perfect.
Readers who like Sophie Kinsella and Elizabeth Young should check out The Little Lady Agency. Hester Browne’s writing is funny and accessible in the same way, and Melissa as Honey is a delightful heroine. I highly recommend this book.