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Change of Love

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Outpress, London, 2003
(price: £7.99; 220 pages)

dedication: In memory of the life of Daisy France

The blurb on the back:

Successful sales rep Joanna Meakin has lots of plans but only one real prayer Ė that no one should ever find out about her one-night stand with sales force super-star Chris Kelleher.
But the secret's too exciting and she gives in to temptation - again and again Ė until a brush with death forces her to re-evaluate her life.
Confession is out the question. Forgiveness is difficult to find. Then, dabbling on the fringes of faith, she meets the mystical and curiously insightful Hilary.
Unfortunately, Hilary has a secret of her own - one that will draw Joanna into a contemporary hell.

opening lines:
When Joanna Meakin stood up to give the keynote presentation to the Gynexa sales conference, she was quite naked.

This is a deceptive little tale. Starts out quite straightforwardly at a sales team-meting in Majorca, where up-and-coming rep Joanna Meakin finds herself in bed with a company executive. What seems like a brief lapse into adultery develops into a full-blown affair back in England, and leaves Joanna living a double-life, as she discovers that Ďnothing consumes the soul like infidelity to a loved oneí. So far, so unexceptional. Itís only when the guilt drives Joanna into the arms of the church, where she meets a New Age-ish teacher named Hilary, that you start feeling that weíre headed in some odd directions here.

Before long Hilary is explaining that Joannaís problems are to do not so much with sexual restlessness as with the sickness that lies at the heart of our society:

íPeople have never had so little to do. We donít have to catch our food, or kill it. Weíre barely involved in cooking it. We have transport. Machines for everything. And still no one has any time. Now, surely thatís wrong. Clearly we arenít so busy because of necessity, so it must be greed. Greed for material rewards, all sorts of pleasure. Or fear. Weíre too anxious. No one believes they will be provided for. And so in the rush for possessions and position, we hurt each other. We break promises.í (p.119)

Under Hilary's influence, Joanna gradually begins to overcome her obsession with career advancement, turning instead to a pursuit of spiritual discovery. Which frankly ainít going to help her marriage any, but does her a power of good.

At the outset you felt like youíre in for the now-standard theme of modern womanís conflict between work and home Ė Joanna has no time for children, for example, despite her husbandís wish to have a family Ė but by halfway through, youíre realizing that Ms France has pulled an impressive stroke. Avoiding impalement on either horn of the dilemma, Joanna aims straight between them and finds hope in a world populated by monks and mystics.

Except that thereís still more going on. Joannaís husband is a photographer who had earlier discovered and married a Jordan-esque woman who went on to enjoy massive celebrity status as the possessor of the Best Boobs in Britain. Itís a nice little side-angle that allows for a bit of light satire on the media and sets up the final act, where Joanna and Hilary get caught up in the sleazy world of the tabloids.

Itís all sounding a bit messy as I describe it, but trust me, itís not. It actually hangs together pretty damn well, and the way that Joannaís life spirals out so wildly as a consequence of that initial drunken encounter is very cleanly done. Essentially itís a study of a woman trying to make some sense of how she fits into a society thatís inherently unbalanced, and itís not dissimilar to something one might expect from Gillian Freeman (the publishers claim Joanna Trollope, but I think my comparisonís more flattering). Above all, itís really very compulsive stuff: you find yourself getting sucked into it without quite realizing whatís happening.

You may have noticed that this is a dangerously modern publication by the standards of this site, so Iíd better explain that it was sent to me as a review copy. This is the first time such a thing has happened (all such offers happily considered) and perhaps reflects the crap state of publishing in Britain, where an independent publishing house dealing in quality, middle-brow work for grown-ups struggles to get reviews in the fashion-conscious, back-scratching world of the mainstream media. For that reason alone, Iíd be inclined to urge you to support Outpress. Fortunately, thereís an even better reason: this is a very good book, thought-provoking and shot through with genuine insight, and itís well worth reading.

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