Category Archives: lite

A Sensible Life by Mary Wesley

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Mary Wesley and I usually get on like a house on fire – I’ve enjoyed eight of the ten novels she wrote for adults – but this wasn’t the case with the ninth, A Sensible Life, the story of Flora who we first meet as a 10 year old child on holidays in France, walking a dog on a beach, as observed by 15 year old Cosmo from the shore, but who we never really get to know in any profound way.

Flora’s parents have no time for her and in the way of Mary Wesley’s ‘orphans’ she soon finds herself observing the people around her, including Cosmo’s family, and becoming peripherally involved – which sounds like a contradiction in terms, but isn’t if you’re Mary Wesley – on an irregular basis.

The main problem I had with A Sensible Life was the way that Flora was treated as an object by most of the other characters – from her parents who palm her welfare off on to other people, and then send her to boarding school in England, to the two young men, Cosmo and Hubert, who foist their sexual attentions upon Flora aged 15 but ignore her otherwise, to Cosmo’s mother, who is threatened by Flora’s sexual power and deliberately neglects her welfare as a consequence.  It was not only joyless reading but it also reflected badly on a culture that objectifies young women.

Problematically for the book, there doesn’t seem to be any point to this treatment of Flora.  She is barely affected by others’ behaviour towards her and they in turn, do not grow or develop in any way over.  Because nothing changes, there is no shape and no colour to the book, and no need for a resolution or climax, which, overall, makes for fairly pointless reading.

A Sensible Life is not one of Mary Wesley’s best.

Book Details:
A Sensible Life by Mary Wesley
Black Swan, 1990, 380 pages, personal copy.

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BOOK REVIEW: All He Ever Wanted by Anita Shreve

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BOOK REVIEW: All He Ever Wanted by Anita Shreve, fiction, Abacus, paperback, 2003, 322 pages.

Shreve_All He Ever Wanted

Knowing very little about Anita Shreve’s work, I picked up All He Ever Wanted after reading somewhere online that it references Virginia Woolf’s notion from A Room of One’s Own that ‘A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction’.  More broadly, this is often taken as a claim for women’s independence.  All He Ever Wanted tips its hat to this idea but it’s not its central force.

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BOOK REVIEW: Something Might Happen by Julie Myerson

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BOOK REVIEW: Something Might Happen by Julie Myerson, fiction, Vintage, paperback, 2004, 328 pages.

Myerson_Something Might HappenAfter being recently bowled over by Julie Myerson’s wonderful book, Home, I eagerly sought out some of her fiction — in this case, Something Might Happen.  Unfortunately, there’s no way of getting around this, I’m disappointed.

Something Might Happen is the story of a murder and the emotional ramifications for the victim’s family members and close friends, including children.  It’s told from the first person perspective of Tess, who was the best friend of the victim, Lennie (a woman).

Tess doesn’t so much observe as tell, and she tells us how everyone reacts to Lennie’s death.  She also immerses us in her own response, including a will-I-won’t-I dilemma she faces about having an affair with Ted Lacey, a victim support officer, even though Tess is married.

The main problem I had with the book was that I just didn’t buy what was happening.  So much left me cold.  And I think it’s because of the over-involved first person narration.  It reads like a diary, lacking quotes for direct speech, which was sometimes confusing.

Suddenly he’s behind me.

They’re not really going in are they?

Oh, I say, blushing furiously.

Sorry, he says, I could see you were in a dream.

Well, I say. Hi.

It’s freezing, he says. Do they really swim in this?

I shrug.

It’s warm enough, once you get in.

Lacey shivers.

I was looking for you, he says as Fletcher wags and wiggles.

Without quotation marks to act as signposts, I found myself having to evaluate what I’d just read to work out if it was speech or description.  It becomes tiresome after a while.  It also has the effect of making it seem as though everyone is communicating telepathically; it seems to disembody the characters and render them disconnected from the world.

This ‘diarising’ also creates a lack of perspective.  We are so much in Tess’s head, we’re not really sure what’s going on.  And we’re distanced from other characters because we don’t get to know them or see things from their points of view, thereby limiting the empathy or sympathy we might feel for them.

At about three quarters of the way through the book, there is a further tragedy which I felt was actually the core of the novel because it touches Tess far more directly.  It rips her heart out, and her behaviour starts to feeling somewhat more authentic as a consequence.  But there isn’t any real exploration of the effects of this event because there isn’t time — the book is neatly wrapped up in a where-are-they-now summation of the main characters.

On the positive side, Myerson has a knack for creating realistic family interactions.  I found myself thinking about the accuracy with which she captures our behaviour, particularly between adults and children.  But it’s not enough to hold the book together.

I really wanted to like Myerson’s book because I adored Home but Something Might Happen is not my cup of tea.

BOOK REVIEW: The Best a Man Can Get by John O’Farrell

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BOOK REVIEW: The Best a Man Can Get by John O’Farrell, fiction, Black Swan, paperback, 2000, 301 pages.

 

I am currently struggling through A.S. Byatt’s The Children’s Book so when a friend gave me a box of his old books, I thought I’d have a squizz at some of them before I get rid of them on BookMooch.  I dived right in and emerged holding up O’Farrell’s, The Best a Man Can Get.  It’s a complete contrast to Byatt — funny, entertaining, witty and so, so easy to read.

 

O'Farrell, The Best a Man Can GetIt’s about Mike Adams, a musician in his early 30s, who writes music for advertisements.  He spends most of his time in a flat in south London that he shares with three other rootless young men and he has set his life up to be easy — as the following example demonstrates:

 

“My bedroom had evolved so that the need to get out of bed was kept to an absolute minimum.  Instead of a bedside table there was a fridge, inside which milk, bread and butter were kept.  On top of the fridge was a kettle, which fought for space with a tray of mugs, a box of tea bags, a selection of breakfast cereals, a toaster and an overloaded plug adapter.”

 

I’m not giving anything away when I say that what is soon revealed is that Mike has a family in North London – a family consisting of a wife and two young children, with a third on the way.  When he returns home at the end of each week, his wife believes he does so after a long few days staying overnight at work.

 

His rationale for living this way – even though it means that his wife is carrying the can for raising their kids – is to preserve his marriage.

 

It was because I thought our marriage was so important that I kept resting it.  The strain that small children brought into our lives suddenly seemed to create such tension and petty hostility between us that I was terrified of the damage becoming irreparable.  Admittedly, I had developed a personal solution to a joint problem … [b]ut I didn’t feel I could confess to wanting time away from my children.

 

I have no problems with confessing that I want time away from my child.  I also have no problems confessing to being envious of Mike Adams.  As a parent of a one year old, there are days that I long for the freedom I used to have to do whatever I want and whenever I want.  And desperation means that a double life looks like a very good idea indeed.

 

But as the book shows, this duality is unsustainable, and the rest of the book is a riotous, unpredictable unravelling of both of Adams’s lives.

 

I recommend this book without question to anyone, not just parents.  There are some profound observations on the dynamic that occurs between adults once they’ve had children, and the acceptance that Adams finally musters of his life as a family man is a bittersweet acknowledgement of having to grow up even when you don’t want to – something that applies to parents and non-parents alike.

 

O’Farrell was previously unknown to me but since reading The Best a Man Can Get, I’ve learned that he’s served time writing comedy for a number of British TV institutions such as Spitting Image and Have I Got News For You.  He writes a little like Nick Hornby but is perhaps less apologetic about being male than Hornby.  He’s also written a number of other books and runs the satirical news website, NewsBiscuit.

 

I have a copy of his first book, Things Can Only Get Better: Eighteen Miserable Years in the Life of a Labour Supporter, in the post, on its way to me, at the moment, and I must admit that I’m very much looking forward to it.

 

BOOK REVIEW: Friday Nights by Joanna Trollope

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BOOK REVIEW: Friday Nights by Joanna Trollope, fiction, 2008, paperback – pp.414.

 

For some reason I confused Joanna Trollope with Mary Wesley and ended up going home with Friday Nights rather than The Chamomile Lawn.  I don’t quite know how this happened, but it did.  Expectations of Mary Wesley aside, Friday Nights provoked a mixed reaction from me: there was a lot of potential but it didn’t quite live up to it.

 

Trollope, Friday NightsBriefly, Friday Nights is about a group of women who meet on said night to get a dose of womanhood.  They’re from all walks of life – Eleanor, the instigator and retired public servant; Paula, the single mother of Toby; Lindsay, the single mother of Noah; Jules, Lindsay’s DJ sister; Blaise, the careerist; and Karen, Blaise’s business partner, who is trying to juggle work and motherhood.  They have met and supported each other through their lives for the past few years, but when Paula brings her new boyfriend along one night, friendships start to change.

 

It’s a nice idea but Friday Nights was too ordinary for my liking.  I read to go to a different world, even if that world is a contemporary one that I’m familiar with because there’s something about good writing that can make the everyday seem extraordinary.  But with Friday Nights, I didn’t respond to the downtrodden, slightly self-pitying nature, of the two single women, and Eleanor felt like too much like an oracle rather than a real person, spouting apparent wisdom when other less-together characters faltered. 

 

But the redeeming feature of Friday Nights was the insight it offered into the lives of contemporary women.  For instance, Karen ponders the changing nature of her relationship with her husband after having children:

 

What was it about motherhood that could put marriage in the shade?  What was it about oneself that made one still not want motherhood to be the only identifying mark?

 

And in a conversation that Blaise is having with Eleanor about the choice women seem to have to make between a career or children, she says of Karen’s difficulties in juggling the two:

 

… for women like us, brought up with the highest expectations, it can be quite easy, I think, to find yourself inconsolable.

 

They’re strong ideas and though they’re not really explored or addressed, it’s probably enough that questions about them are raised because they’re real and they’re out there. 

 

I suspect that Friday Nights is going to be an interesting read in 10-15 years.  It will date as times change but it will prove an illuminating read for older and wiser selves who lived through it, and for a younger generation who will ask with some disbelief as they (I hope) sail with ease through the management of their own lives, careers and children, Was that really the way it was for women then?