Monday 22 April 2019

I Owe You One: Sophie Kinsella turns her focus on family dramas in light and airy read

Fiction: I Owe You One

Sophie Kinsella

Bantam Press, hardback, 374 pages, €15.99

Bestseller: Kinsella returns with an enjoyable novel after the uneven Surprise Me
Bestseller: Kinsella returns with an enjoyable novel after the uneven Surprise Me
I Owe You One by Sophie Kinsella

A new Sophie Kinsella book is always an event for her legions of loyal fans, and her latest may not have the spark of her greatest hits, but it captivates nonetheless. It comes as a relief after last year's offering, Surprise Me, which felt flimsy and uneven, with an irritatingly twee heroine - yet still easily topped the bestseller lists.

I Owe You One tells the story of Fixie Farr, the youngest of three siblings and the one working hardest to keep the family homeware business afloat following her father's death.

Fixie earned her nickname from a compulsion to "fix" things, from clearing up litter to straightening wonky vases, and it's this habit that leads her to our hero, Seb.

During a rare coffee break, Fixie ends up saving the handsome stranger's laptop from ruin, and he in turn presents her with an IOU. When Fixie's teenage crush returns from LA seeking a fresh start, she ends up cashing it in, and the two find themselves in a cycle of returning each other's increasingly demanding favours.

As with many of Kinsella's standalone novels, the romance is just one element of the plot, and in this instance, it's not even the main one. She may have been christened the 'queen of chick lit', but Kinsella's novels are equally, and often more, preoccupied with the heroine's friends (in this case, a friend struggling with fertility issues), family and career.

The latter two are closely intertwined in I Owe You One, as Fixie works with her older siblings, the flaky, self-centred Nicole, and the intimidating, arrogant Jake, who longs to turn Farrs into an upmarket lifestyle store.

With their mum away on an extended break in Spain, the three are forced to work together without their mother's mediating presence, and find themselves butting heads over their drastically different visions of how the shop should be run.

Kinsella's writing is lively and very funny, although the pace here starts off slow. In spite of her ditzy nickname, Fixie is an engaging heroine, striking the right balance between silly and relatable, but she can also be frustratingly weak, frequently wilting under pressure from her siblings and her manipulative crush.

Her ideas are constantly dismissed or scoffed at by her brother and sister, and this doormat act lasts for a good two-thirds of the book, which may try readers' patience. It does, however, make the moment when Fixie eventually snaps and gets herself together all the more satisfying.

In some cases, the writing suffers from an almost cartoonish characterisation of Fixie's siblings - her sister is impossibly absorbed in her own concerns, while her brother is almost irredeemably cruel, making for some hilarious scenes that test the limits of credibility.

Kinsella became a publishing sensation with her Confessions of a Shopaholic series, which followed financial journalist and shopping addict Becky Bloomwood's madcap attempts to evade her bank manager. Before becoming a writer, Kinsella (whose real name is Madeleine Wickham) worked as a financial journalist, too, and in I Owe You One, she returns to financial matters.

Fixie is still smarting from her own business failure and personal debts, while her brother makes ever-more ambitious (and high-risk) plans for the family store's future. The financial woes ripple beyond our heroine and help to ground the novel, exploring how money can stir up painful feelings about independence, status and self-worth.

Kinsella is also known for her sharp eye for the zeitgeist, and in I Owe You One she targets influencer culture and workplace sexism to amusing and rousing effect.

Readers may feel that Seb, the romantic lead, is unduly neglected at times, although he has his own problems to contend with, including a villainous girlfriend and his grief for his dead brother.

After that charming meet-cute, Seb remains more of a supporting character amidst Fixie's family dramas, but the novel is no worse off for it. Kinsella still sprinkles in a few heartwarming romantic scenes, and overall I Owe You One makes for a very enjoyable, diverting read. A surefire hit for Kinsella fans, but not the place to start if you're new to her books.

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