As I've stated elsewhere on this blog, Lisa Heidke is a friend of mine. Because of that I read her books. I'm glad I do, because otherwise I would miss almost entirely the genre she inhabits.
It's marketed as chick-lit. The pink cover with gold hearts gives that away, but really What Kate did Next (Allen & Unwin, ISBN 978-1-74175-933-4) is simple escapist popular fiction, and that's meant as a compliment.
Rather than expanding the generic boundaries of the Mills and Boon and Harlequin formulaic books, this is the sort of book we had on the bedside tables of our house when I was growing up. It's the sort of book we took on holidays to the beach. It's the urban Australian equivalent of Georgette Heyer, Agatha Christie, Taylor Caldwell and even Mary Renault.
Of course it recounts a journey. In this case, the journey concerns Kate Cavendish, who should be happy in her well-off middle-class North Shore lifestyle (yes, I'm talking about a very Sydney book).
She has two children, a thirteen year old troublesome daughter Lexi and an eight year old son Angus. Her husband Matthew is a successful businessman who expects her to cook dinner for visiting American clients at a moment's notice. The scene where Kate offends four Mormons with her alcohol fuelled meal is very amusing, and self-deprecating about the smug superiority of North Shore codes of behaviour.
Kate was a successful photographer before she took on motherhood. Now, she has a chance to work again at Delicious Bites magazine. Her friend Fern, perhaps a little conveniently but again in that casual North Shore way, is "a guru in the magazine world" and thus able to offer Kate a suddenly vacant assistant position.
So Kate starts work and, while she is fantasising about the thighs of Arnaud, Angus' soccer coach, who also works at the magazine publishing company, finds herself out late at night, and drunk, with Graeme Grafton, the handsome chief photographer.
At the same time, her mother is proposing to remarry her father, who left the family twenty years before, while her sister Robyn blobs around eight and half months pregnant. Robyn's husband, Dan, ran away once the pregnancy was confirmed and is now in Spain asking for a divorce so he can marry the chick he's met there. Meanwhile, Lexi has cut her hair off and is wagging school.
It sounds silly and it could be, but Heidke hangs these disparate pieces together to create a funny and pleasant read. That may not seem much, but so few books offer that these days. I find I close more at page 10 than I finish.
Yes, we have infidelity, but neither Kate nor Matthew does the dirty deed (though Kate comes perilously close). The side-story of the remarrying parents is engaging and offers a counter balance to the general craziness. And in the end Kate finds she can be a photographer, a mother and a loved and loving wife.
Is it for everybody?
I don't think so, but it is for sufficient readers that Allen & Unwin chose to publish this second of Heidke's books. It's not merely because it is set on the North Shore, where the dads drive BMWs, the mums drive Mercedes and the soccer coaches are French and handsome. My own book set on the North Shore, Music from another Country, has been praised for its honest depiction of masculinity, but, even though it is enjoying modest sales, no publisher (including Fat Frog, who published it) was ready to throw significant marketing dollars at it.
Not so for What Kate did Next. The book is everywhere, including front of the shop here in Dymocks Armidale. Heidke's book is indicative of subtle changes in the publishing industry. She is part of the feminisation of publishing -- it is women who are buying more books, who are reading more fiction. Stories for blokes are relatively high risk -- publishers are better off targetting their non-fiction lists at them.
So this is the new "middle list". And with a book like What Kate did Next, Allen & Unwin have made a good middle-brow, middle-class choice.
That may seem as if I'm damning the book with faint praise, but I'm not. This is the sort of book that is like comfort food. It's nourishing, familiar and tasty and you know what you are getting.
You can't go wrong with that.
Footnote: In the list of acknowledgements, Heidke thanks Shelley Kenigsberg as a member of her writers' group. Shelley has been an office-bearer in the Society of Editors (NSW) and or several years in the eighties I worked with her and Lisa Heidke at the same publishing company. It's pleasing to see we're still all muddli9ng around with the industry.
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