Heroine who's better naughty than nice

review

'The Agency,' a clever novel about a literary agent, is part chick-lit and part thriller

March 01, 2009|By Carole Goldberg | Carole Goldberg,Sun-Sentinel

The Agency

By Ally O'Brien St. Martin's Press / 320 pages / $24.95

If you have hitherto regarded literary agents as mousy types, Ally O'Brien will change your view.

The Agency is a delicious mash-up of chick-lit and thriller, kind of what The Devil Wears Prada might have been if written by John Le Carre.

Chief among these miscreants is our heroine, Tess Drake - smart, ambitious, impulsive and sexy, and possessed of a singularly dirty mouth and snarky attitude. She's also a bit slutty, as she will tell you.

Repeatedly. This gets her into plenty of hot water, but she relishes splashing around in it. That is, until she makes the mistake of falling in love. Tess is not the only piquant female character. There is her most important client, Dorothy, an animal-rights fanatic who has made gazillions writing children's books about pandas (and might just be a plagiarist). There is Cosima, who hates Tess and takes over the agency where they both work when its head, Lowell Bardwright, is found dead after what looks like a session of erotic asphyxiation gone wrong.

Add to the list two other competitors, Saleema and Felicia: The first loathes Tess for having had an affair with her then-fiance; the second believes Tess cheated her out of a lucrative deal - and both have vowed revenge. Also on hand is loyal Emma, Tess' assistant, who's in love with Jane, a wannabe actress who plays her biggest role at a cocktail party; and Sally, an older agent who has been a mentor to Tess, but envies her.

If most of the women are harpies, most of the men are toads. Only Tess' dad, a journalist, and Oliver, an author, are honorable men who want the best for Tess. Alas, while Oliver is brilliant and her favorite client, he's also depressed and addicted, giving Tess more stress than solace.

The plot turns on whether Tess can outwit Cosima and successfully launch her own agency after Lowell's death. It is convoluted and clever enough to keep you guessing about who wants to help her and who wants to ruin her, and happily, the answers are not obvious.

The authors offer sharp dialogue, steamy sex scenes, a lot of skullduggery and a heroine more appealing when she's naughty than when she's nice.

By the way, "Ally O'Brien" is not one person, but two. According to the publisher, one is an "internationally best-selling author of suspense novels," while the other is an "entertainment agent based in London." Whatever, he/she/it has concocted a spicy thriller out of an obscure corner of the publishing world, which is no mean feat.

Carole Goldberg, a former books editor at The Hartford Courant, is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.

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