Chick-lit usually focuses on the falling-in-love phase of a relationship. If there is any falling-out-of-love, it usually occurs when the heroine breaks up with her clearly unsuitable boyfriend to clear the way for Mr Right. So Wendy Harmer deserves credit for writing a novel almost exclusively devoted to that messy post-breakup phase.
We first meet Francie when she’s been dumped by her boyfriend of five years. That single fact and her grief over it forms the central theme of the book, as Francie journeys from total-mess to not-such-a-total-mess. It’s hard to emphasise with Francie’s self-loathing at times, but Harmer writes honestly and does not pull any punches. I particularly liked her refusal to have Mr Right turn up in the end and save Francie from herself. Similarly, the gay character is not the camp stereotype that seems to infest chick-lit these days, but a fully realised chacter. In many respects Harmer has written a very original book.
Unfortunately, the structure and writing of Love and Punishment don’t always live up to expectations. For example, the role of the therapist who Francie visits to talk about her problems seems contrived, a device to move the plot along rather than a realistic character. Similarly, Francie’s repeated dreams featuring her ex and his new girlfriend are less than subtle.
On a personal level, I occasionally found Francie a bit irritating. I suppose that was a risk that Harmer took when she decided to have a main character who spends the entire book in floods of tears feeling sorry for herself. In the end she does pull it off though because you sense that the book was written honestly, self-pity, snotty noses and all.
My feeling is that Wendy Harmer is still in the process of development as a writer, trying to develop comedic one-liners into sustainable and believable characters. I think she’s got guts in taking on a fairly unattractive subject and she’s tried hard to avoid the usual clichés. This book was written in 2006 so I would pick up another of her more recent books. I have the feeling she’s not finished yet.