There is chick lit, or witless, ill-written, juvenile popular fiction, and then there is superior chick lit, which is smart and amusing and written for grown ups. Both these novels fall into the latter category, both are second books by well-regarded journalists and both are worth taking into the garden or on the plane this summer.
Lucy Kellaway of the Financial Times stays in the office, where her first hilarious satire of corporate life and the pompous executive male, Martin Lukes: Who Moved My Blackberry? was located. This time, her target is the tragi-comedy of the office affair, and revolves around the ill-judged but irresistible romantic adventures of two women, Stella, the office star, and Bella, the office beauty.
Stella is in her early forties, slim and blonde and the top woman at Atlantic Energy, a global oil company. She has a nice husband who is less successful than she is and takes her for granted, and two children; she loves them, but her work is the most exciting thing in her life.
Kellaway, who knows the City well, manages the considerable feat of making the dramas at Atlantic authentic as well as amusing, as Stella negotiates egomaniacs and backstabbers and endures endless turgid presentations and meetings on her way to her seat on the board.
The last thing she needs is a dangerous, obsessive romance with a new recruit with bitten nails and a chip on his shoulder. Rhys is clever, driven and nearly 20 years younger; Stella knows the affair is madness, but his admiration beguiles her and the sex is spectacular. The risks to her family and her job terrify her, but add to the thrill; she is soon hooked.
Meanwhile down the corridor the gorgeous dark-haired Bella, a single mother in her twenties, finds herself drawn into an equally risky and hopeless romance with her fortyish boss, James. This is more familiar territory, but Kellaway makes it fresh (even the sex on the boardroom table), showing how a bright girl can be drawn to a portly married man in a powerful position who first recognises her potential and then reveals his own vulnerability. Before long the two pairs are even using the same hotel.
This novel is cunningly constructed and skilful in its use of those dangerous weapons of modern romance: the rash email and the ill-timed text message. It is emotionally satisfying as well as entertaining, because Kellaway understands about love and guilt and how there is always a price to be paid for breaking the rules.
In her first book, the sharp, funny I Don’t Know How She Does It, Allison Pearson (former Daily Mail columnist) also dealt with what can happen to women in high-powered offices. This time she has shifted her ground. Her new novel is openly autobiographical, taking her back to her own adolescence in Wales in the 1970s and her passion for the original pop idol, David Cassidy. Petra is a musical girl with a kindly dad and a ferocious, culturally and socially ambitious mother, who treats a secret trip to a pop concert as a crime and hides the letter that would have made Petra’s teenage dream come true. Pearson writes touchingly and well about teenage passions and fantasies, the cruelties and rivalries, the mooning over make-up and magazines and posters, the way that love for an androgynous youth provides a safe path out of childhood towards the dangerous grown-up world.
While Petra dreams, the letters to fans from Cassidy are being written, with clenched teeth, by Bill, who has a degree in English but needs the job on the down- market teen magazine that creates the fan base and sells the records.
The trouble is that once Bill and Petra coincide, at the infamous White City concert where one girl died and many were injured in the crush, the reader begins to see what is coming. Years intervene, and Petra becomes a cellist and marries a professional musician who maltreats her but, sure enough, the long- lost letter surfaces, the past is reclaimed, and happiness regained all round.
The plot may be predictable, and the second half too slow, but Pearson’s book, though bound to appeal most to readers of her generation who remember Cassidy, is also a satisfying celebration of love lost and found.