Secondary characters

Do you ever love a book not for its main protagonists but for its secondary characters? I think that was the case with me and JoJo Moyes’s new book, Someone Else’s Shoes. The two protagonists, Nisha and Samantha, certainly drive all the action with their stories, but it is when the secondary and peripheral people get involved that those stories really come to life.

Part of this is because neither of the protagonists is particularly likeable. Samantha’s okay, I guess, but she spends so much of her downtrodden existence reacting like a confused limp noodle that it’s easy to grow impatient with her and snap “Buck up!” every time you encounter her on the page. With Nisha, it’s the opposite problem—she’s so entitled that your constant response is to want to do anything to stymie her, and follow up by smacking her silly. So when you first start reading this book, it may make you wonder why you should keep going. The answer is the others.

The basic story: Sam and Nisha are at the same gym. After their respective workouts, somehow they end up accidentally switching gym bags. Nisha’s contains a Chanel jacket and a pair of custom red crocodile Christian Louboutin high heels, while Sam’s has a pair of practical black flats and the British equivalent of an outfit bought at Target.

The switch proves initially beneficial for Sam, because she’s teed up for a series of business meetings and, forced to don the Louboutins (or wear gym flip-flops), she gains some needed confidence and lands three deals in a row for the printing company for which she works.

Nisha, on the other hand, wouldn’t otherwise be caught dead in Sam’s flats, but when she steps outside the gym wearing those and a bathrobe only to discover that her car and driver are nowhere in sight and she can’t raise anyone on her phone, she’s stuck. Little does she know how stuck, however, until it becomes clear that her husband has taken this inopportune moment to shut her out—out of her penthouse suite at London’s poshest hotel, out of her custom wardrobe, out of her bank accounts and credit cards—she’s literally destitute in the space of a few minutes, and has no idea how to recover.

She’s such an unlikeable character that you almost revel in the desperate straits she finds herself; fortunately for her, surrounding folk aren’t as gleefully vindictive as you are! She meets Jasmine, one of the head housekeepers at the hotel where Nisha and her husband Carl are staying, and Jasmine, at least initially, pretty much saves the day. Sam is similarly blessed, by a co-worker, Joel, who buoys her up when her confidence is lagging in the face of abuse from their new supervisor, Simon, and also by her best friend, Andrea, who is undergoing cancer treatment but can still be counted on to give sage advice about Sam’s depressed, unemployed husband.

Both women make an initial attempt to return the bags to the gym and retrieve their own, only to discover that the gym has financial woes and is closed until further notice, cutting off their access to the possibility of identifying who is now holding their belongings. The rest of the book is a sometimes funny, sometimes grim French farce about the efforts each woman makes to get her life back on track and retrieve the things that are important to her, enabled by the aforementioned wonderful secondary characters.

As you can guess, there is a fair share of heartwarming personal transformation, but it’s not maudlin, nor is it cute, so it rings true. The contrast in status of each woman with the people surrounding her and how that matters (or doesn’t) in the scheme of things is a big theme, as is discovering what each truly wants as opposed to what they have been accustomed to receiving as their due or enduring as their punishment. There are hints of developing romantic relationships between various characters, which is always nice if done properly, and also some comeuppance results, which are gratifying. All in all, I really enjoyed this latest from Moyes.

Two added notes: First, I am bemused by the choice of artwork for the cover. With a book completely centered around those shoes, why aren’t they on display in all their wildly expensive glory? Second, after finishing this I scanned the next five books up on my Kindle, wondering which to read, and noticed that The Reading List, which will be due at the library in a week so should probably be first, was written by Sara NISHA Adams. Having never previously encountered the name Nisha only to read a book with one as the protagonist, it seems too serendipitous that the following novel should be written by someone of the same name, doesn’t it? That’s my reading life…

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