27 SEPTEMBER 2003, Page 51

Home thoughts from abroad

Olivia Glazebrook

AZUR LIKE IT by Wendy Holden Headline, £12 99, pp. 473, ISBN 0755300653 Wendy Holden sells a colossal number of books, so there's something she's doing very, very right. Her four previous novels have all been bestsellers, and she is described as a `superseller by her publisher. (Soon they will run out of superlatives and she'll be described as an 'intergalactic megaseller'.) Azur Like It will undoubtedly sell a gazillion or so copies. Films will be made. TV series will show and then reshow on UK Gold. Wendy Holden sells a fairy tale of Honest-toGoodness toppling Pretentious, and it's a winning formula.

Kate Clegg is a downtrodden journo, beavering away at the local newspaper of her northern home town, Slackmucklethwaite. She dreams of a more glamorous life as she files dull news reports on local kittens getting stuck in local trees. She is given her chance to escape by the newspaper owner's son, Nat Hardstone, who persuades her he has arranged her big break — to cover the Cannes film festival. Naturally, he is a Cad and has tricked her Out of her money (and into his bed), but she only discovers he's a King Rat when she's already flown to the Cote d'Azur (gecldit?) and is friendless, homeless, and cashless. She has to manage alone. Which she does — thanks to her northern temperament, apparently — getting several jobs all at once, landing a handsome, penniless artist boyfriend, and befriending a fabulously rich old lady into whose grand house she swiftly moves, lugging her 'ancient family suitcase'.

But that's not the end of the story, not by a long shot. The already gloopy plot thickens like custard: an old lady is swindled out of her savings, a 'ghost' in a sheet pitches up and tries to spook the heroine, an elaborate sting to steal Picassos is uncovered, a con man disguises himself as an interior designer, using a staple gun and swathes of purple viscose. Everywhere Kate turns, there is something unlikely happening. But in the end she decides that home's best, and off she trots back to Slackmucklethwaite, taking her handsome artist boyfriend who has cunningly realised that the way to this girl's heart is by admiring her roots.

It's a 'madcap caper' then, and a long one, which is absolutely all right. But there's something spooky going on with this 'home values' theme — they're confusing. Everyone seems to be mocking everyone else, and it made me uneasy. Kate is mocked — by the Bad Guys, natch — for being poor, northern and having bad clothes. Kate in turn mocks her mockers for being nouveau riche and having no taste. Celia St Louis (once posh) mocks her husband Lance (not posh) for celebrity-spotting (which is his job). But when down-to-earth Kate Clegg sits in the Hotel du Roc celeb-spotting 'the real George Clooney! ... it really was Nicole Kidman!" it is supposed to be rather sweet and naive. Champagne D'Vyne and King Rat are ambitious, and this is a quality despised by all the Good Guys. But hang on a minute — homely Kate wants her job on a local paper to show her a 'gateway to a wider, more exciting world'. That must be a different sort of ambition. A good sort.

To be on the right side in Wendy Holden's world, you have to watch where you step. There is a narrow criterion for entry to the gang, and anyone who's not 'in' is sectioned and despised. So this is what chick-lit means: writing that takes you right back to the horrors of the girls' playground. Even Kate Clegg doesn't escape. As a chick-lit heroine she's beautiful, but thinks she's ugly. She's got big knockers but she wishes she hadn't. She has a messy car that constantly breaks down, and she likes her food. Her healthy, down-to-earth appetite is matched by her normal figure, but bless me if she doesn't get sunstroke just before the end so that when she and her artist have their making up scene, she's nice and skinny. I expect he loves her more, now she's shed a bit of weight. This book pretends to champion the girl next door, but it's about as loyal as a long bitching session after lights out.

Finally, however, for the only beautiful line in the book, quoted from As You Like It: 'Come woo me, woo me, for I am in a holiday humour and like enough to consent.' And so say all of us.