A very old saw: “How ya gonna keep ’em down on the farm/ After they’ve seen Paree?”
That song once referred to U.S. soldiers sent overseas during World War I, but the sentiment works for anyone who has ever left a family farm and seen a bit of the world — like Katie Brenner, the 26-year-old heroine of Sophie Kinsella’s fizzy new novel, “My (Not So) Perfect Life.”
Kinsella is best known for her blockbuster “Shopaholic” series featuring the hapless, label-mad Becky Bloomwood — there’s even a movie starring Isla Fisher. But Kinsella also writes stand-alone novels like “My (Not So) Perfect Life.”
We meet Katie in London, where she’s trying to be “Cat.” She has a room in a shared flat that’s so tiny that she keeps most of her belongings in a hammock. And her budget is even tinier: She stirs up lots of stews involving turnips. But she tolerates all this for the prize: her job as a research assistant at hot branding agency Cooper Clemmow, where her glamorous boss, Demeter, both inspires her and drives her crazy. (For “The Devil Wears Prada” fans, there’s a scene involving hair dye that you’ll adore.)
Just as things seem to click into place for Cat — she speaks up in a meeting, she meets a scrummy man, she’s asked to join a lunchtime drinks clique — the fates intervene. If all of this sounds a bit Bridget Jones-ish, that’s because it is. Kinsella knows her readers, and she doesn’t stray far from their penchant for bumbling young women struggling to make sense of their place in the world. The difference here is that, rather than leaving the farm to see Paree (or London or New York), Cat winds up leaving London to go back home and help her family turn their working farm into a glamping destination in a bid to make it profitable. Before long, she’s using her big-city skills with very rural types. “You need to hold the client’s hand,” she tells her father. “Hold it throughout. Make them feel secure every minute of the process. Then you’ll have a happy customer.”
And something else separates this comic novel from the usual fare: “My (Not So) Perfect Life” isn’t about a sexual relationship. Oh, there is one, and it has the usual misunderstandings and antic couplings, but the soul of this book concerns female friendship and its dynamics. When Demeter turns up with her family for a glamping holiday, Cat-turned-Katie sees the opportunity to set things right between them. The ensuing chaos involves everything from lemon drizzle cake to a mud-and-cowpat caper.
It’s all very silly until someone gets hurt — and someone does. However, what ensues has a touch of real wisdom in its slapstick hand that will satisfy Kinsella die-hards as well as new readers.
Bethanne Patrick is the editor, most recently, of “The Books That Changed My Life: Reflections by 100 Authors, Actors, Musicians and Other Remarkable People.”
By Sophie Kinsella
Dial. 448 pp. $28