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Cynical caricature gives chicklit a good name

Letters to a Love Rat

Niamh Greene

Penguin, €5.99

THE FORMAT of Niamh Greene's Letters to a Love Rat ticks many of the traditional chicklit boxes: a jaunty cover with bubbly writing; a trio of gals looking for Mr Right; the gay best friend who blurts out his every thought; and the merciless Devil Wears Prada-type boss.

It's a solid format that, done well, pleases readers in their gazillions and fills Christmas stockings all over the world. But so much of it has become so formulaic and poorly executed (and carelessly edited) that it's giving the talented practitioners a bad name. That's a huge pity: good chicklit tales are funny, poignant and -- if they have a dark side -- particularly satisfying. (Here endeth this reviewer's brief Letter to the Chicklit Snobs!)

Unfortunately, Letters to a Love Rat begins as though it's flicking though the formula textbook and ticking the box marked "flippant". It takes Niamh Greene some time to deliver those extra success factors -- but thankfully she does.

The three gals are Molly, Julie and Eve; their common-denominator love rat is Charlie. The main character is newlywed Molly, who wakes up to a don't-hate-me-please-put-out-the-bins note on husband Charlie's cold pillow. Julie is having a sex-in-the-stationery-cupboard affair with her boss, Mr X (yes, Charlie); her story is told through her blog and open forum. On her therapist's advice, Eve is writing unsent letters to the man who broke her heart two years ago when she came home early to witness his infidelity... who else but Charlie?

Their connections become even more apparent as the novel unfolds -- but only to the all-seeing reader, never to the gals themselves. Molly is a feature-writer for "Her" magazine, whose editor has commissioned Eve to write those ridiculous, polarised A, B or C relationship quizzes. Julie is a book publicist pushing the work of "Mr Dick Lit": Molly's ex; her true love.

The peripheral connections and coincidences are dizzying -- Eve and Molly getting the same taxi driver banging on about his idyllic marriage is just one of many -- but they're cleverly crafted and reasonably credible. It's a small world, after all.

Some poorly disguised references are not so cleverly crafted, however. In fact, this reviewer found them downright irritating -- actor "James" Law splitting up with "Angelica", the "Sheldon" Hotel, "Hiya!" magazine. Niamh Greene could surely have done better; she's clearly capable of considerable imagination.

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Once she overcomes the flippancy factor, however, this author is also capable of being very, very funny. Bewildered Molly has a wry, self-deprecating sense of humour; depressed Eve is often unwittingly witty; and unscrupulous Julie is in a hilarious predicament. Indeed, the latter's searing blog contains great laughs: her scathing account of how power-crazed Useless Colleague One tries to organise birthday buns to gain favour with Charlie is especially hilarious.

The highlight of this novel, however, is how the bestselling Demented Housewife author weaves women's magazines, chicklit (and dicklit) authors and book publicists into the plot, holding them up to wickedly cynical caricature in such an entertaining, tongue-in-cheek way that she totally gets away with it.

It is fitting, too, that the writer does not give Charlie his own voice or let him hog the limelight. Letters to a Love Rat is all about how Molly, Julie and Eve (and indeed some of Greene's many other characters) move towards their happy ending.

That's the great pleasure of well-executed chicklit: the expected happy-ever-afters, with laughs (maybe tears) and a few decent twists along the way. And, above all, piggybacking upon a successful format rather than trotting out a cliched formula.