Lisa and Co. – Jilly Cooper

(Corgi e-book: stories from 1967-1981, collected 1981)

This is an entertaining if rather dated collection of short stories about love and loss; dated because of the attitudes on display towards working women, and those of the women themselves, who seem to consider life incomplete without a man: as Cooper puts it, jokily, in the introduction “[believing] that God was in his Heaven if all was Mr Right with the world.” Some are humorous, others less so, though Cooper’s good humour and love of word-play and punning does display itself in most of these stories; some are genuinely affecting.

A Pressing Engagement:

Hester gets a job as a PA to the film director, Darrell French, but, too soft-hearted to give notice at her current job, tells her boss it’s because she’s getting married. She doesn’t want to involve her married boyfriend, Julian (a sociologist) and instead says that her fiancé is her long-time friend Nico (Nicholas Calvert). Events pile up on top of Hester, and before long she’s having to present Nico to her colleagues and they’re having to lie to everyone. Farcically funny, with the obvious ending, but which seems natural.

Forsaking All Others:

This is rather an interesting story of potential infidelity: Julia, married to David, meets Richard at a party: Julia and Richard (who is also married) are instantly attracted to one another. At Julia’s birthday party not long afterwards, Richard and his wife are invited, and Julia and he acknowledge how they feel about each other, but events don’t go according to plan. There’s a nice twist in the ending, and Richard and Julia are sympathetic characters, despite the planned infidelity.

Temporary Set-Back:

Jenny, the narrator, works for a small publishing company: she and her two female colleagues adore Mr Rambridge, and she’s convinced that he will, one day, fall in love with her. Upon the departure of his secretary, Miss Winn, on holiday, a temporary secretary is hired, who is fired three days later, but herself confesses her own attraction to Mr Rambridge.

Sister to the Bride:

This is quite a sad story, of two lonely people – Helen and David – who meet at Helen’s sister Sally’s wedding. Both have recently had long-term relationships break down, and recognise kindred souls in each other. “Then he took a bit of confetti out of my hair. You know how it is – some people maul you about for years and nothing happens and then one man touches your hair and a thousand volts go through you.”

Christmas Stocking:

A funny, light-hearted story – Caroline is pretty, but hates her thick legs, until Jamie turns up with her brother Matthew for a family Christmas.

The Ugly Swan:

Jessica is a cub reporter for a local newspaper: the youngest and most awkward of a family of five daughters, she’s been in love with Danny McCarthy for years, since he used to date her beautiful elder sister Helen. Invited to a party by racing driver Oliver Cotswold, she accepts because he mentions that Danny will be there. Her friend and colleague Rosie takes charge of Jessica’s appearance for the party, and when she arrives she finds herself in the unusual position of being sought after by all Oliver’s friends. When Danny finally arrives, all they seem to do is misunderstand each other.

An Uplifting Evening:

The unnamed narrator is feeling dissatisfied with her boyfriend, Colin, a director at Cuti-Curve Corset Company, but when she meets a handsome artist at the laundrette where she’s washing Colin’s shirts, she turns his advances down. Colin invites her to the company’s annual Ladies’ Night, and, encouraged, she borrows her friend Elizabeth’s strapless dress, which is rather on the tight side. At the dinner dance, she discovers that Colin has been making eyes at Deirdre Bligh, daughter of the managing director, and disaster strikes. While I think she treats Colin with far too much consideration, the artist provides the perfect come-uppance for the inconsiderate boyfriend, and all ends well.

Johnnie Casanova:

This story is a departure from the others in that it’s told from a man’s viewpoint. Richard is resigned to his flatmate Johnnie’s seemingly unstoppable success with women, until he meets Gemma, and falls in love with her, only to find that Johnnie breaks up that relationship too. Although Richard works out why, the discovery is not a happy one for any of the three.

And May the Best Girl Win:

Kathleen has just returned from holiday to find her two colleagues, Fiona and Blackie, suddenly in love with Charles Townsend, recently appointed as scientific consultant to take over their department. Rather fed up by this behaviour, Kathleen takes to having her lunch with her boss, Mr Pringle, and is surprised to be lectured by Mr Townsend about the inappropriateness of this relationship. This is one of my favourite stories in the collection, amusing and with a lovely scene of mistaken identity.

Political Asylum:

Virginia and Jenny rent a flat in a very distinguished block, opposite that of the Minister for Public Relations, Anthony Hudson. One wet evening, Virginia is locked out of the flat, and the MP offers her asylum until Jenny returns. Various people arrive and depart, none of whom believe Virginia’s story, and she gets an entirely new idea of politicians. Cooper remarks in her introduction that this story was considered too scandalous to be published when it was written in the 1960s!

Kate’s Wedding:

This is one of the longer stories in the collection. Kate is in the thick of preparations for her wedding to Hugh, a rising barrister, and is rather on edge and exhausted as a result. The weekend trip to the Hillingdons’ boat doesn’t seem like Kate’s cup of tea, but particularly not when one of the other guests is Tod, with whom she fell in love years earlier at university, and for whom she still carries a torch. The weekend is predictably a disaster, but Kate is given the courage to break off her relationship with Hugh, whom she doesn’t really love, and to withstand the bitter recriminations of her parents (who had approved so much of Hugh).

Lisa:

Paul Buchanan has a book about motor-racing accepted at a small publishers, where he meets secretary Lisa Aitken. Although Lisa isn’t the usual sort of glamorously pretty woman Paul usually dates, he finds himself wooing her, though he finds there are secrets in her life that she won’t share with him.

The Red Angora Dress:

The unnamed narrator is invited to a party by her losing-interest boyfriend, Andrew. In her red angora dress, she’s rather overdressed in the tropical heat of Sylvia Oxley’s house, but it serves her well when she discovers Andrew chatting up another girl and meets Sylvia’s dissipated brother Mark.

The Square Peg:

Penny is the charming but utterly incompetent junior secretary to the managing director of Joshua McInnes Inc. and Jake McInnes is the younger son, sent over from the States to sort out the British branch of the firm. They clash, predictably.

These are all rather charming stories, with Cooper showing a gift for characterising office life, and a way with dialogue. None of them claim any psychological depth (except the rather bitter Johnnie Casanova and Kate’s Wedding), and generally are set amongst upper-middle-class girls and the rich or well-connected, such as the Tankards in Sister of the Bride. There’s a nice variety in the styles, too, so that one can read the whole collection without feeling there’s a formula to them (other than meeting the right man after misunderstandings!).

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