February is the perfect month to read a new novel by Katie Fforde. The bestselling author of books like A Summer at Sea and A Secret Garden (out in paperback this month) has the rare knack of creating heartwarming scenarios and characters you really care about. I once said that her characters are the sort of people you want to be your new best friends – and they really are.
Fran Duke is her latest heroine – a talented chef who’s recently left her comfortable London life and moved to a rundown farm in the Cotswolds. The farm is owned by an elderly distant cousin who’s too frail to run it any longer and has moved to a care home. With no family of her own she tells Fran that if she can turn the farm round within a year the place will be hers.
The premise seems preposterous, especially as Fran knows nothing about farming, has very little cash and is terrified of cows. But as always, Katie Fforde quickly won me round. For a start, her descriptions of Hill Top Farm are entrancing – and made me want to move to Gloucestershire myself. “The farmhouse was on a plateau at the top of a hill that overlooked hills and wooded valleys,” she writes. “Beyond them lay the Severn, a silver snake in the far distance, and beyond the river was Wales.”
The other thing about Katie Fforde’s books is that readers always learn something new. In the past she has written about everything from creating a garden and vintage weddings to internet dating and survival techniques and this time round she incorporates cheese making into the plot. She cleverly weaves just the right amount of authentic detail into Fran’s story without getting too technical or letting it take over. Coincidentally, when I spoke to a farmer friend recently his descriptions of making cheese completely tallied with Fran’s experiences in A Country Escape.
Katie Fforde makes writing look deceptively easy but her books are snappily plotted and paced. In this novel, she blends a touch of romance, a twist in the tale (provided by the ghastly Roy, who turns up at the farm insisting that he’s going to inherit the farm and not Fran) and lots of gentle humour. The result is a captivating read, the perfect tonic for these long winter months.
A Country Escape by Katie Fforde (Century, £12.99)