Top critical review
Immigrant Tale Meets Chick-Lit
on 10 December 2015
I bought this book largely because I've known several Poles who've settled in the UK, and hugely enjoyed a couple of other books about the Polish-London experience (chief among them Sue Gee's 'Spring Will Be Ours'). Courtney is very clear in interviews that she's not a chick-lit writer - she went back to self-publishing for this reason - but for all her claims, this book did seem oddly light-weight.
The heroine, Marta Dubrowska, is a graduate in Marketing from a well-regarded university in Warsaw (not the main university, I think), who has spent most of her life living in a very small Polish town. After graduation, she comes to London to look for a high-level marketing job. Fortunately (and very improbably) her mother, years before, made friends with a rich Englishwoman, who offers Marta a room in her South Kensington house - with only one housemate, said Englishwoman's snobby daughter Tasha - for as long as she wants, which takes care of accomodation. Finding a job is less easy, and Marta finds herself for some time doing the inevitable leafletting round while desperately applying to companies for marketing and advertising work. However, she finally begins to get on track - only to realize that her struggles have just begun. For not only is there the strange English job market to conquer, but there is the inexplicable moodiness of rich English girls, and the dilemma of finding the right boyfriend - should she choose Dominik, a gentle fellow-Pole also trying to work his way up the English job ladder, or the glamorous, rich, Cambridge-educated Jack?
Courtney has an amusing and very readable style, and some of the descriptions of London - and Marta's reaction to English traditions such as drinking games - are excellent. She does have the knack of making you want to read on, which means that the book is enjoyable light reading. And she's clearly done quite a bit of research into Polish traditions and food. However, this book highlights the dangers of not having a good editor (it's self-published) and is not nearly as serious as it pretends to be. Really, the story isn't so much about a young Polish woman coming to terms with English life as a rather predictable romance - nice girl has to choose between rakish adventurer and kind, steady soul. And the romance isn't interesting enough to hold the attention. Jack is so loathsome that it's surprising Marta takes him seriously, and her bubbly excitement about dating him and sipping cocktails at the Hurlingham Club makes her seem horribly mercenary. Dom is nice, but at the same time quite bland - and so honest and dependable that the misunderstanding between the two of them that leads Marta to drop him seems ridiculous. Marta herself doesn't come across as very sympathetic for a lot of the time, even though we are meant to be on her side. Her attitude to men seems very 'what's in it for me?' and her refusal to let Dom explain himself comes across as cruel - and she's clearly dumped a much nicer boyfriend back in Poland for seemingly no reason at all. Fortunately in the later Polish scenes we do see a more thoughtful Marta, which made me like her more.
Worse were Courtney's depiction of the Cambridge set. I was at Cambridge, and though Courtney is spot on about some of the silly drinking games, she caricatures many of the Cambridge-educated set to an absurd level. Cambridge is not - to my knowledge, unless I never socialized with them - packed full of millionaires who after graduation immediately relocate to incredibly posh London homes and jobs in the city. Somebody as thick as Tasha would have been unlikely to get into Cambridge at all, ditto Plum. Nor do all bright Cambridge students think management consultancy, banking or commercial law are the only jobs possible. I know Holly (who I suspect is Courtney with her first name slightly changed?) was meant to offer a contrast to the rest of the Cambridge students, but portraying the bulk of Cambridge students as thick, insensitive, hugely rich and vulgar was inaccurate and silly. I also didn't believe in Jack's ability to multiple-time his girlfriends! The marketing firm are also caricatured, though quite amusingly so.
The novel could have also done with a good edit to iron out some of the implausibilities, inconsistencies and inaccuracies. These ranged from simple errors - Dominik trying to call Marta on his mobile when it has allegedly also been stolen, Marta drinking half a bottle of wine with Dom happily in one scene and then expressing a hatred of the drink in the next, an Italian called 'Carl' rather than the Italian 'Carlo' - to lingual errors - as one reviewer pointed out, 'Dom' wouldn't be a typical Polish abbreviation of 'Dominik' to unlikely plot twists. For example, if Marta's English was as bad as it seems at the start, would she have really been able to secure a high-level marketing job? If her qualifications were that good, wouldn't her English have been better too? Would her nemesis at the firm have really got away with such evil plotting? Bearing in mind Central European attitudes to education (more serious than here, I think) would her marketing degree have been thought quite so wonderful in Poland? (It was, after all, a vocational degree, not an academic one). As another reviewer noted, I also suspect Courtney's Poland is rather dated - more like Poland in the last days of the Communists than Poland today. And I found everyone's obsession with money, fashion and glamour a bit irritating.
This being said, it is a rather fun read, the relationship between Marta and her family, and to a degree between Marta and Dom is rather sweet, some of the encounters between Marta and the super-rich were genuinely funny and the ending was genuinely quite heartwarming. As a very light-weight tale of immigrant life it's good downtime reading. But read Amanda Craig's 'Hearts and Minds', Sue Gee's 'Spring Will Be Ours' or Rose Tremain's wonderful 'The Road Home' for a better idea of what immigrant life is really like, and a more accurate vision of today's London.