Following fearlessly in Mel Gibson's footsteps: Heart Searching: How do you find the love of your life? Should you turn to a matchmaker? Rachel Lipman seeks the answers in two new books

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The Independent Online
Sensual, imaginative brunette, 25, artistic, intelligent, with a sense of humour, enjoys: home life, cooking, sports, country life; no ties, own home. Seeking a tall, strong, intelligent, fun companion, with inner depth, for passionate, loving romance, 25-35. Photo guarantees reply. Must feel able to love Ben my dog too. Midlands/anywhere.

NOT JUST any old personal ad, but the best - at least in terms of getting a response. According to Linda Sonntag's Finding the Love of Your Life, those 50 or so words led to no fewer than 241 replies plopping on to the doormat of the lucky advertiser.

Mind you, I am not sure I would want to hear from some of the men who are likely to reply. You might, for example, get the poor bloke who was on the books of the same marriage bureau for 24 years.

This is a lively, well-written and practical handbook for anyone who is thinking of meeting people through an introduction agency or a personal ad, packed with advice about such matters as cost, personal safety, and your chances of success. On wording your ad, women are advised never to reveal their age and always to say they are attractive - 'put it in, otherwise they'll think you look like the back of a bus]' Apparently, respondees to singles ads say they regard a 'sense of humour' as the most important quality (in my opinion, they are lying - at least the men are), followed by 'caring' and 'attractive'. As for turn-offs, if you are thinking of describing yourself as 'fat, smoker, wealthy, sexy, handsome and fun-loving', forget it]

Having commendably decided 'before I could write about it, I had to try it for myself', and armed with the comforting thought that Mel Gibson found his wife through a dating agency, our heroine set out to meet Mary Balfour, of Drawing Down The Moon, in the most entertaining section of the book. She was immediately told that, at 41, she was too old; not only that, but she wore glasses. 'I was utterly amazed that this should go against me, especially in an agency that advertised itself as being for 'thinking people'.' Ms Balfour agreed that this was unfair, but even educated men in top jobs preferred younger women and, when it came to sex, did not like specs. Their loss.

Worse was to come. Ms Balfour took one look at the photograph Linda submitted and announced: 'Men don't like women with things on their heads. This hat, or whatever it is - they won't like it.' 'This hat' was in fact a spotted headband of which the author was particularly proud, but it had to go. Concluding 'men feel their authority is undermined by a woman in a hat,' she advises not to take it personally if an agency rejects you - try elsewhere.

The section on agencies, which includes an appendix giving details of members of the Association of British Introduction Agencies (a bit hard on the many good agencies that are not in the ABIA, but I suppose she had to stop somewhere), gives some idea of the wide range available. Whether you are green, glamorous, Asian, vegetarian, handicapped, a farmer, rich, poor, shy or confident, there is an agency for you somewhere.

She sums up by saying: 'The message of this book is not that this is an infallible method of searching out and finding love and happiness, but that it is all right to try it. As society gets more and more fragmented, I am sure it will become a more obvious and acceptable way of getting in touch.'

'God was the first matchmaker. There is no suggestion in the Bible that Adam and Eve chose each other.' Hedi Fisher, who makes this striking observation in her new book, may not have been around quite as long as that but is a venerable figure in the ever-changing world of introduction agencies and marriage bureaux. In 25 years she has introduced thousands of people to each other and claims to have been instrumental in bringing about more than 5,000 marriages.

Matchmaking is in her blood: an aged aunt performed the task for her village back in her native Hungary in return for a 10 per cent cut of the dowry from any subsequent wedding. Hedi survived the Holocaust, unlike most of her family, and grew up in Britain where, after a divorce, she gave up her job as a social worker to set up her own marriage bureau. Her personal story is a fascinating one and it would have been interesting to read more about it.

Instead, rather too much of Matchmaker Matchmaker is devoted to a series of generally dull case studies of former clients, most of which read like second-rate soap opera. We are told of Vanessa, a gorgeous model type who catches her millionaire husband in bed with the au pair and rebounds into a succession of relationships with playboys before finding true happiness with Sydney. A chapter promisingly titled 'The Author and the Athlete' turns out not to be an updated version of the old Bishop and the Actress joke but the tiresome saga of Lance, an unhappy novelist, and the beautiful Scandinavian, Ingrid, with whom - you guessed it - he finds true happiness.

Style, as well as content, leaves much to be desired. The errors of grammar, punctuation and spelling liberally strewn through the text are distracting, even when Mrs Fisher has a good point to make: thus 'nice men simply did not register with a marriage bureaux (sic) in the 1960's (sic) because of the stigma which surrounded this form of meeting'.

The book is not without insights, such as the suggestion that the basis for the happiest relationships may lie in neither partner feeling the other putting pressure on them in any way. There is also an excellent passage on unrealistic expectations and the dismal failure of many people to see themselves as they really are.

She is also good on the illogical way some people still attach a stigma to using agencies: 'If you want a house, you go to an estate agent. If you have a pain in your back, you go to a doctor. If you want a spouse you go to a marriage bureau.'

However, don't take the jacket blurb too seriously. 'This book relates the secrets of Britain's most successful Matchmaker. She takes you behind the scenes, revealing a wealth of human stories - humorous, tragic and . . . . . . . . sexy.' Despite those eight tantalising ellipses (count them), Matchmaker Matchmaker is about as sexy as the Maastricht treaty.

'Finding the Love of Your Life' by Linda Sonntag (Piccadilly Press, pounds 6.99)

'Matchmaker Matchmaker' by Hedi Fisher (Book-Line, pounds 5.99)

(Photographs omitted)