cover image The Cultured Handmaiden

The Cultured Handmaiden

Catherine Cookson, . . Simon & Schuster, $25 (256pp) ISBN 978-0-684-80855-0

It's the 1970s, and 21-year-old Jinny Brownlow has just heard her fiancé pronounce her a "cultured handmaiden" —slavishly eager to please—and announce he's leaving her for her roommate. What will obedient Brit Jinny do, in these years of women's liberation? Stand up for herself as best she can. She puts her new MO in motion as secretary to Bob Henderson, her gruff, demanding boss as the two engage in friendly banter ("You are a cheeky bugger," he tells her), and Henderson's wife and six children soon become like a second family. Meanwhile, Jinny finds herself attracted to kindhearted Hal Campbell, though the twice-divorced actor doesn't appear to have marriage on his mind. Jinny's life is turned upside down again when her boss and his eldest son, Glen, are in an accident that kills both of their spouses. While ministering to the wheelchair-bound senior Henderson, Jinny finds herself drawn to his once wayward son, John. Is he the man of her dreams—or just another cad? In a genre known for predictable plots and even more predictable characters, bestseller Cookson (d. 1998) renders a sharply drawn heroine with scruples and sass in this engaging tale originally published in the U.K. in 1988. Occasionally overwrought prose does little to distract from the story of a woman hoping for romance and respect. (Jan.)