The Old-Girl Network, by Catherine Alliott

Polly's a 20-something secretary on her way to work when a man on the tube catches her attention. He later turns up at her office, and begs her to help him: his fiancee has disappeared, and he, an American in London, doesn't know where to look for her. He knows that she attended the same school as Polly (he noticed Polly's school scarf) and so hopes that Polly might be able to track her down?

I expected this book to be like What Goes Around - readable chick-lit. Well it is the same genre all right, but it was not as good as that book (which itself was OK without being great).

The writing here was quite tiresome and could really have done with editing down. The book was 14 CDs long and I reckon could easily have been halved. Not only does Polly go on for ages about stuff that's not really relevant, her prose is full of unnecessary detail and tautology. E.g. "For some reason, I felt unaccountably sick"; "I walked down the darkened corridor in the dark".

Polly herself comes across as pretty spectacularly uninteresting. Her one notable character trait is a propensity to make up wild lies on the spur of the moment to get herself out of trouble. These are never very amusing (or they didn't seem so to me), although the response of her interlocutor is almost always that "he threw back his head and roared with laughter" (there is a lot of head-throwing-back-and-roaring-with-laughter).

There was one bit in the book that made me laugh out loud, and one that drew a smile. The laugh was when she quoted Jessica Mitford's mother comparing childbirth to having an orange coming out of your nostril. The smile was for an episode where her boyfriend convinces her to let him shave her - the sense of bemused exasperation with which she acquieses to this was quite good, and led me to hope that there might be more humour like this in the book, but - no.

So I can only assume that Polly is stunningly attractive, which might explain why people don't get tired of her. Actually, there's one place in the book where she complains of another character that "she has relied on looks and superficial charm" which seemed to me to be a good description of Polly herself. At the end, she "gets" the wonderful boss, but for the life of me I can't see what he might have seen in her.

At one point she said something like this:

Her hair could have done with about 40 worth of highlights, I noted with my expert eye.
and I thought that it would have been funnier if she'd missed off the "expert eye" clause. This also came to mind in the next book I read.

One thing that was quite striking was how self-centered the characters are. I sort of thought perhaps this was ironic, and meant to be seen as a criticism of this type of personality, but having finished the book, I don't think it was. Polly seems interested only in Attracting A Man, and spends a long time planning on how to do that, but there's no sense that there's anything more to a relationship than making someone else want you. No concern for what the other person might want or need; no mention of caring for one another, keeping company, etc.. And all the people in the book were like this. It was as if they're all living just on the surface, with nothing meaningful happening.

Definitely wouldn't read any more by Catherine Alliott. Can't see at all why this was a bestseller. I looked on amazon and someone there calls it "true to life" and says they've read it 30 times. Good grief :-(

Completed : 18-Feb-2009 (audiobook)

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