Every time, and I mean every single time Jill Mansell's books go on sale — which happens a couple of times a year — readers say how much they love her writing. “Comfort reads,” is one term I see a lot, along with “charming and funny,” and also “lovely.”
I was in one of those reading moods where nothing was grabbing me, and things I thought I wanted to read weren't working for me. I think I started four or five different books before putting them down. I'm not sure if it was holiday exhaustion or what, but when the Mansells were on sale, and the words “comfort reading” wandered by on my Twitter feed, I realized, THAT was what I needed. Comfort reading.
Millie's Fling was recommended by several readers in past discussions as one of the most charming of Mansells, and, wouldn't you know it, I already owned it. (Probably because it had been on sale – woo!) So comfort reading time began. And oh, the comfort. Like sinking into the softest warmest cushions with blankets and snacks and absolutely no reason to keep track of what time it was, plus fuzzy slippers. I very much enjoyed myself.
Millie, the main character of the book (whose title indicates some sort of fling is imminent), is at a lookout point with her boyfriend Neil. He is trying to work up the nerve to ask her something when she notices a woman pacing by the cliffside, inhaling cigarettes and clearly trying to talk herself into something. Millie realizes that (a) her boyfriend is not going to ask her to marry him, which is a relief for her, and (b) he's asked her to move in with him because his lease is up and he's lazy, but more pressing: (c ) the woman by the cliffside is about to jump. So Millie gets out of the car abruptly because she doesn't think she has time to explain, and her boyfriend gets all asshurt that Millie wasn't listening to or all that thrilled about his really not very generous offer, so he drives away.
That's sort of the theme to this book: learning to recognize more and more quickly which people are really worth having in one's life. Repeatedly, folks in the story realize who is worth making the effort for, and conversely, which people are only using others for their own benefit. This cycle repeats with just about every character.
I also noted as I was writing this that the opening scenes operate with an interesting sort of contrast. Neil is trying to work up the courage to ask Millie to move in with him – which isn't really that big a deal from Millie's POV, while the woman on the cliff is trying to work up the courage to end her life. Neil and the woman on the cliff (whose name is Orla but we haven't met her yet) are both trying to force themselves to take a risk, a literal or figurative jump, and the way in which those risks affect or involve Millie reveal a great deal about her, and about them.
(Fortunately, Neil isn't present much after the opening chapter, which is splendid because he's a tool.)
(NO, really, here's Millie getting out of the car and Neil getting asshurt:)
This woman was planning on jumping down.
‘Any normal girl would be flattered,’ Neil was carrying on huffily. ‘Any normal girl would have been chuffed to bits, I can tell you. Honestly, I can’t believe you’re being so ungrateful, what I don’t think you realize is what a catch I am—hey! Where are you going? What d’you think you’re playing at now?’
You also can see in that sample the other thing I really liked about this book – Got English?
These characters are the place – their dialogue is English as in England English.
The dialogue is as English as
It is as English as: and .
And possibly also .
Not quite as English as
Seriously, the dialogue is so English it might as well arrive in a double decker red bus calling “Tally ho!” out the window or something, tossing Cadbury's at me while asking if I want a cuppa with my giant jar of sandwich spread.
Anyway. I liked that part.
So Millie goes over to the cliffside, meets the woman pacing, and convinces her to sit down and not jump. The woman, Orla, is a famous novelist, who is distraught over her husband cheating on her, and Millie points out that if Orla jumps and dies (which she would – these are high cliffs and it's Cornwall so it's not like the cliffs are half-assed about their cliffy-ness), her allegedly cheating husband and his mistress would get all the money Orla has — unless Orla has changed her will, which she hasn't. Millie's good sense and kindness bring Orla back away from the edge – literally and figuratively – and they part ways. Millie's now single, but her lazy ex wasn't really worth much agony, according to Millie, so she goes home to her flat, newly single but having saved someone, which in the balance of things is ok with Millie.
Then the adventure begins. On her way back to her flat with her roommate, Hester, Millie finds a wallet in the shrubbery. The wallet belongs to a handsome gentleman, Hugh, who turns out to be a widower, a computer expert, and terribly perfect for Millie. Their story is one of the starts-and-stops plots that makes up the book, along with Millie's reconnecting with Orla.
Orla is a big ol' catalyst protein for Millie. Orla shows up and helloooooooo changes. After Millie convinces her not to jump off a cliff, Orla meets her again at the travel agency where Millie works (laboring for two really really horrible people – there's a set of them, like a teapot and cups, all horrible people determined to be horrible, but I didn't mind because for me, they were horrible in recognizable and believable ways). After Orla's visit, Millie is fired because of yet another misunderstanding from her horrible bosses. This is two major pieces of Millie's life that Orla has dismantled, first Millie's “meh” boyfriend and her “eh” job. Neither are stellar, but they were hers, and due to Orla's arrival, Millie's boyfriend and bosses decide they're better off without Millie.
You'd think Millie would run screaming the minute she saw Orla again, but not so. Orla gets wind of Millie's being fired, and realizes she can help. Orla has decided after a scathing review of one of her books that she's going to stop writing celebrity stories and start writing real literature, and she's going to base her story on Millie's life. So she pays Millie £5000 (which translates to a little over $8200 US at the moment) to tell Orla everything about her life for the next few months. Millie also takes up a part-time job as a roller skating gorilla kiss-o-gram company run by an ex-fling of Hester's, and the adventures continue. I don't mean “adventures” in the sense that anyone is swinging from trees here. Millie's life is shaken up by Orla's involvement, and that disruption spreads slowly through the complacency and status-quo of everyone in Millie's world — including Orla.
Orla and her husband, Millie's divorced parents, Millie's former employers, Millie's roommate Hester and her boyfriend, Millie and her friends, and Millie and Hugh all stumble through a repeated but varied pattern in the story where they identify who is and isn't worth having in one's life. That message is not tiresome or heavy-handed at all. I only really noticed it while thinking about the book. (This is, by the way, one of my favorite things about terrific comfort reading: it's friendly and warm but there are many layers to the warmth and increasing depth to the way the theme repeats itself.)
I liked Millie a great deal. She is pretty sure of herself and genuinely kind and nice. She's very practical, and even when she's hurting she keeps going, trying to make the best of her situation. Plus, her point of view dominates the narration for much of the book, and Millie is funny:
‘Actually, I’m doing it for all sorts of reasons. First of all, I think you’d be great material,’ said Orla. She held her glass of Frascati up to the light, admiring the way the sun glinted off it. ‘Think how we met, for a start. Then there's your gorgeous wallet story… and losing your job… and getting another job working for the handsome guy your best friend has a mad crush on—’
‘Okay, okay,’ Millie said hurriedly. She wouldn’t have called her wallet story gorgeous.
‘Secondly, I’d be getting out of the planning rut. I wouldn’t know what was going to happen next, simply because it won’t have happened yet! So no need to agonize over the plot,’ Orla said joyfully. ‘And you have no idea how great that would feel. I’d be free!’
Orla was right; Millie had absolutely no idea how great that would feel—the last piece of fiction she’d written had begun, ‘Dear Great Aunt Edna, Thank you so much for the lovely pair of shorts you knitted me…’
One thing I disliked was the way the book started head-hopping about 1/3 of the way through. The story is set up and all the characters are introduced through Millie's point of view (third person, though, not first), and then, once Millie's path is all set up and all her subplots are in place, the story jumps to other people's perspectives. So where I was expecting more of Millie, I'd be seeing things from other people's views, such as Hester, Millie's mother, Hugh, and assorted other characters. It was jarring to be in someone else's head after spending so much time in Millie's point of view, though I understood the need for additional perspectives. There's a large cast of characters, and there was no way Millie would learn or be aware of everything going on.
Before Millie left two hours later, Orla scribbled out a check for five thousand pounds and stuffed it into her hand. Oh my giddy aunt. Five thousand pounds.
‘Really, you don’t have to,’ Millie protested, not meaning it for a second. How awful if Orla said, ‘No? All right then, I’ll have it back.’ Happily she didn’t.
‘Rubbish.’ Orla was brisk. ‘This is a business arrangement. It's only fair.’
It was, Millie decided happily. It was fair. Except…
‘I’m a bit embarrassed. What if you end up with a book where the girl spends her whole life watching EastEnders, shaving her legs, and trying to eat chocolate without getting it on her clothes?’
Despite years of practice, she’d never mastered the art of biting a Cadbury's Flake without crumbly bits falling down her front.
‘Exciting things will happen,’ Orla said soothingly. ‘And if they don’t, we’ll jolly well make them happen.’
By the end of the story, many, many things happen, including several possible arranged beaux for Millie, a few parties and nights out, dancing, drinking, and kiss-o-grams and prank phone calls.
I liked that by the end of the story, most of the characters who were honorable and decent humans figured out that the persons in their lives who were using them and who didn't have their best interests at heart were holding them back. From cheating husbands to crap friends to parasitic people that won't go away, every character has one or two to deal with, and they're all dealt with differently. Figuring out which people are worth having in one's life is a hard lesson. Seeing all those parasites dealt with was very satisfying.
The somewhat easy conclusion to everyone's problems is part of the fantasy of the world within this book, and I was all on board with that. Elements that I might have raised a brow at in a different context were entirely possible for me with this character and this story. For example, one's ability to roller skate can solve the most pesky of unemployment problems, and allow one to locate a convenient, flexible and well-paying job, provided one can wear a costume. A large costume. Especially when a spontaneously generous novelists drops £5k shortly after the arrival of said unemployment.
I think part of what makes this a comfort read for me is that, aside from the complete resolutions and the ease of wealth problems being solved, it has a very strong sense of place. This book is set in Cornwall and while there weren't a lot of landscape descriptions, the characters' local routines and habits gave me a thorough understanding of the town, and how it worked – and how it was different from other parts of England. I could imagine the places the characters were, and I was transported while reading.
Plus, British slang. Oh, the slang. IT WAS SO FUN.
I looked up so many words out of curiosity, I now have a vocabulary that's 10% larger and 67% more colorful. More importantly, I understood what each word meant in context, so it wasn't like I couldn't comprehend the sentences, but after awhile I wanted to challenge the on board dictionary to see if it knew the words. And most of the time, it did. The Kindle dictionary is well versed in British slang, like MANKY!
Oh, I like that word.
So if you grabbed a Mansell on sale, and you're looking for some fun and unique contemporary comedy, you'll very much enjoy it. And if you haven't any Mansells, they'll come round on sale again soon. And they are not manky.