Reviewed by Emma Crowley
Fran has always wanted to be a farmer. And now it looks as if her childhood dream is about to come true.
She has just moved in to a beautiful but very run-down farm in the Cotswolds, currently owned by an old aunt who has told Fran that if she manages to turn the place around in a year, the farm will be hers.
But Fran knows nothing about farming. She might even be afraid of cows.
She's going to need a lot of help from her best friend Issi, and also from her wealthy and very eligible neighbour - who might just have his own reasons for being so supportive.
Is it the farm he is interested in? Or Fran herself?
Many thanks to Random House UK for my copy of A Country Escape to review and to Sharon for having my review on the blog.
What would you do when presented with a challenge that you would never have seen heading in your direction in a million years? An opportunity that couldn't be furthest from your current lifestyle? Something that will test you to your limits, try your patience and call on qualities you never knew you had in you? These are the questions/thoughts running through the mind of Fran as she pulls up at Hill Top Farm with her friend Issi for a year she will never forget. A year that will push her to the very edges of her capabilities with lots of trials and tests sent her way. But will she have the strength of spirit and determination on her side as well as an abundance of kindness deep rooted in her heart to make it through the test as set down by her very distant cousin Amy.
In Katie Fforde's new book the title of A Country Escape certainly lives up to the content between the fun, colourful cover as I really enjoyed a pleasurable, fun filled few hours in the company of Fran. She has agreed to spend a year running the farm, even though she hasn't the first clue about farming, for her Aunt who is now in a nursing home. Said Aunt had no one to leave the farm too and she doesn't wish her herd of dairy short horns and their lineage to die out. No male relatives could be found so the task falls to Fran and ever one to relish a challenge she agrees admittedly against the better judgement of many others.
I have a been a long time fan of Katie Fforde's books but was slightly apprehensive about reading this one. Normally I would read everything she has written no questions asked but I didn't enjoy her last full length novel last year as much as her others but at the end of her festive short story collection there was a sneak preview of A Country Escape and from those few pages I knew I had to read this book. Right from the beginning I just got a good feeling about this book and it really didn't abate the further I got into the story. It's fun, light-hearted and above all else inspires good feelings and warm thoughts. Once I picked it up I couldn't leave it out of my hands as I was eager to discover would Fran go the whole distance and make a success of the farm or would there be too many obstacles placed in her way and therefore everything would fall apart?
This book proved to me that it's always worth giving an author another go even if you hadn't enjoyed their last book as much as you normally do. The basic plot of inheriting after a year seems to be a common theme for books this year as I have already read two or three others with a similar theme but it's interesting to see how different authors approach said theme. I loved A Country Escape from the first word until the last. Fran is a courageous, wonderful character who will find a place in your heart and having you rooting for a positive outcome for her right from the very first page.
Excitement and nerves abound as Fran embarks on a wonderful adventure that could turn out to be the best thing that ever happened to her or else just one big huge disaster. Leaving her comfortable life in London for a farm in Gloucester seems like a nightmare to many but maybe there is something calling Fran to do this even thought it is loaded with responsibility and concerns. Soon after arriving Fran discovers the farm has not being doing as well as it once did. The farmhouse is not a glorious residence as one often sees on the programme Escape to the Country. The accounts are in disarray and money is tight to put it mildly. How is Fran going to deal with the pedigree heard when she herself admits she wouldn't know one end of a cow from another? Thankfully herdsman Tig is on hand when it comes to the cows which relieves some of the burden but the question of what to do with their milk remains. Especially as the milk tanker won't venture up the pot holed filled lane.
Tig was a character who was always there in the background, a quiet conservative man, never saying much unless it was relevant. A person who spoke when spoken to and always choose each word with care. He was a support to Fran when it came to the day to day running of the farm. But who really stepped up to the plate was very wealthy neighbour Antony Arlingham. Antony wasn't seen in the best light by Amy as he has wanted to buy the farm from her to help expand his business empire. The thought of which makes Amy's blood boil. Antony was supposed to be the enemy but I felt from the outset he was genuine and had nothing but good intentions.
Fran was the most remarkable character. For someone who really was like a fish out of water she soon became filled with passion at the task ahead of her. Yes it was enormous and even though Fran hadn't much knowledge or experience she was filled with ingenuity and had plenty of forward thinking ideas. Everything that lay ahead of Fran was overwhelming and many people would run away at the first hurdle but I admired her commitment and even though she barely knew Amy she was aware of how special the farm was to her and she wouldn't let it go without a fight. What's good about Fran was that she wasn't above asking for help or advice. Yes at times she was loathe to ask for money from others but at the same time she was sensible and knew what needed to be done. She also didn't want to go against Amy's wishes but when your back is against the wall you may just accept help from where ever you can and not question someone’s ulterior motives. Her culinary background came in very handy and the ideas she came up with were brilliant but couldn't be pulled off without plenty of hard work and effort. I loved how Fran never once conceded defeat no matter how tough things got. She knew her ideas had merit and despite the setbacks she kept ploughing on and was determined to reach her ultimate goal. She won't rest until success is achieved. I'm glad her friend Issi was there for Fran every step of the way. She seemed so kind, caring and sensible and her own little budding romance was subtly done but just oh so perfect. The friendship between Fran and Issi was just lovely and one you would like to have in your own life.
Antony could have been the character everybody loves to hate. That rich business man who hasn't a drop of human emotion, who will overstep everybody to expand their empire. We've all read about men of that kind in books before but thankfully he was the complete opposite and I loved seeing his soft side emerge. The friendship he develops with Fran was wonderful to see and I hoped something a little deeper might happen. Despite the difficulties, challenges and anxieties facing Fran, Issi and Antony were always there for her. There was another character introduced at the halfway point and I detested said character. The author did a brilliant job of portraying them for what they were- attention seeking and money grabbing. This character was horrible, rude and lacked any empathy or compassion. They were sent to up scuttle everything and I hoped this wouldn't happen given the hard work put in by Fran to make Hill Top Farm a success once again. I had a feeling something would emerge about this awful character but this didn't happen instead a different tack was taken which didn't disappoint but maybe the angle I was looking for could have added even more surprises to the story. Not that this is a fault in anyway as this particular plot line was very well done.
For me A Country Escape is a superb return to form for Katie Fforde. It was evident the author enjoyed writing this book as the characters and storyline came alive on the page and readers will find lots to enjoy in this engaging, life affirming, exquisite book. The story that awaits you inside is a joy to read with memorable characters that you root for along the way. Definitely one to put on your reading list as soon as possible.