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A chick-lit novel that defies the sneering of those snobbish critics

Cathy Kelly's novel about modern womanhood proves that 'chick lit' can pack a punch.

Fay Weldon once said that romantic novels are "dangerous".

She cited Cathy Kelly's Someone Like You because "it's the junk food of the literary appetite", meaning that we know we probably shouldn't indulge but just cannot help ourselves.

Still, those voluminous romances with their saccharine covers keep on coming.

Upwards of 200m romantic novels are sold every year.

And 200m readers can't be wrong, can they?

Besides, that improbable strand which underpinned much of what we used to call chick-lit has evolved into genuine storytelling.

This is Kelly's 13th novel, and it is now 15 years since she gave up her work as a features writer, agony aunt and columnist at the Sunday World.

She'd had two false starts writing novels in her early 20s, but at 28 she found success with Woman To Woman, which stayed at the top of the Irish bestseller list for eight weeks in 1997.

The centrepiece of The House on Willow Street is Avalon House.

The Big House, with capital letters, holds a particular place in Irish writing and Avalon is very much a part of this tradition - a house that was once preposterously opulent but now its grand fireplaces are empty, its windows blank.

The two daughters of the house have gone their separate ways after a forced sale and now Tess is a separated mother of two and Suki is a feminist writer, desperately seeking love and riches.

Tess's eight-year-old daughter still believes in fairytales and in the fairytale quality of Avalon: "It's a palace, Mum," she'd say delightedly when they arrived.

"It's as if Cinderella could arrive here in her pumpkin coach with horses and silvery plumes coming out of their hair."

When Tess's childhood sweetheart returns to the village and buys Avalon House, it seems as if the knight in shining armour has arrived to complete the fairytale.

Then there's Mara, who comes to live in the sanctuary of Avalon to get over a break-up, only to find herself caught up in the damaged lives of the locals, including her Aunt Danae, who conceals a devastating secret.

And so unfolds an interweaving tale of recovery and second chances where four women must confront the ghosts of their pasts.

The result is, yes, a 'chick-lit' book brimming with secrets, passion, tragedy and women dealing with the challenges of being a woman in our time.

The characters are beautifully drawn and bubble with pleasing imperfections.

Kelly puts together several sub-plots to form a book of breathtaking scope that is always realistic.

But it is her ability to weave a thread of darkness through a frothy tale that proves that Kelly's version of chick-lit is capable of packing a powerful punch too.

She has a special knack for tapping into important social issues. Here they include infertility, blended families and domestic abuse.

But ultimately this is a story of feminism and of female friendship - Weldon will definitely approve. Suki's latest book is a rant about how little life has improved for women.

She complains about how feminism has become a dirty word, about women ageing into invisibility and how "young female singers who should have been role models were portrayed as nothing more than sex objects".

Despite everything, women didn't get paid as much as men, Suki writes.

"They did all the housework and caring for the children even if they had an outside job. There was no such thing as having it all."

The female friendships in Kelly's novel bind the characters tightly together and ensure that while they might not live happily ever after, they definitely wind up content.

It's no surprise this book went straight to the top of one retailer's bestseller list in its first week of release.

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