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The Adventuress

Nicholas Coleridge
Orion, $45

There's a blogging astrologist who goes under the name of Madame Arcati (remember the sporty spiritualist in Blithe Spirit?) and who invariably refers to Nicholas Coleridge as the world's worst novelist. This statement has almost the precise extravagance and over-determined specificity as saying Mario Vargas Llosa, say, was the best novelist in the world. But the managing director of Conde Nast, who delights in writing novels, offers pleasures that the limits of art cannot touch, nor wish to. Evil empire builders of business, earnest supermarket acquirers, a more or less incredible assemblage of characters obeying no laws of probability known to fiction, and therefore, if you have a taste for it, an occasion for unusual delights that make most television soaps look like Dickens.

Speaking of the Victorians, this one is a kind of rewrite of Thackeray's Vanity Fair. Cath Fox, the main character, is no one's moral heroine. She starts out working as the matron of a girls' school in the '80s and rapidly disgraces herself by racing off with the father of one of her charges, who becomes the Amelia Sedley of the saga. Cath is a salty Portsmouth lass and she goes from there to working in a dodgy London massage parlour that's actually a knocking shop. This leads to an improbable liaison with a nice old lord who likes to be spanked.

When he dies, she gets a media job - always dangerous in a Nicholas Coleridge novel because he's stimulated by the idea of business and magazines - and after racketing up the career pole, despite being semi-literate, she finds herself, wilfully and cold-heartedly, in the arms of a Manchester United football player whom she marries for money.

This is temporarily bad news for the narrative but there are plenty of other developments. Cath had a daughter when she was a slip of a thing to a thug named Callum, whose tattoo she still bears, and her counterpoint, Annabel (the Amelia figure), marries a cad in the army - again following something like the Vanity Fair plot - and lo and behold, she also has her loyal Dobbin.

Anyway, our bad girl chucks the football yob for an American media tycoon and then - who could believe such powers of invention? - for a minor royal (all Charles-like clipped vowels), who also has an appetite for the go-getter's firm hand.


One of the later delights of The Adventuress is that Cath's daughter, a goody two-shoes who wants to be an investigative journalist, is sent to find the dirt about her anti-heroine (unbeknown to her) mum by the American billionaire when he learns that she's going to ditch him.

If all this sounds like pretty basic stuff, it is. But it can soothe the mind with fantasies that are as familiar for all their soap-bubble shapeliness as the celebrity gossip they share a pew with. This is fiction that has some kind of affinity for Tatler and Hello! magazines.

It's idle and energised and it has the slightly weird quality of being written in a style as modest as the rough-and-tumble of the plot formation. It is, of course, a pure soap-bath fantasy and the mind slides through all its easy stereotypes to hit on this comforting cast of familiar characters.

The Vanity Fair grid all gives a bit more bite to the development and the pleasure is absolutely simple and primitive as the mind romps with the most fundamental archetypes of popular culture (and indeed of its own formation at its most simple).

It's typical of the shamelessness of this book that our superslut/superbitch ends up as a lofty titled lady at Kate and Will's wedding.

This is grovel fiction with a glam facade. If you can stand it at all, you'll love it.