Book Review: The Weekend by Charlotte Wood

This is such a different sort of novel from Wood’s earlier work, The Natural Way of Things, which was a dystopian novel with an underlying tone of menace. I thought it was a stunning read and was happy to hear she had a new book out. The Weekend is a more character driven novel, told with wit and insight, following three women in their seventies who have lost their former glory, are bitter or desperate – is it too late to recover, recharge and reinvent themselves?

The women are old friends who are missing the fourth of their circle, Sylvie, who has recently died. They gather at Sylvie’s beach house just on Christmas to clean it and clear out the junk, ready to sell. First there’s Jude – she’s the bossy one who likes things done properly. She’s worked in a fashionable restaurant, makes a terrific pavlova, and has been the mistress of a wealthy married man for decades. After the house clear-out, she and David will steal a precious few days together. Jude is the first to arrive, but where are the other two? So typical of them to let her down.

We catch up with Wendy, who has car trouble, sweltering as she waits for the breakdown service – we’re in Australia and Christmas is in summer. Adding to her discomfort is her ancient dog, Finn, seventeen, blind, deaf and incontinent – a raft of conditions that make him constantly fretful. If only Wendy would listen to her daughter and have the dog put down. But Finn has been her consolation ever since her husband passed away. It’s hard to imagine Wendy is an academic of some repute who has written books on feminism that have been received with widespread critical acclaim.

Then there’s Adele, an actress who keeps missing the train, facing a bunch of problems including imminent homelessness, and a lack of available stage roles which is galling for someone who dazzled with her Blanche DuBois, Mother Courage, Lady Macbeth – so many brilliant performances. Then there’s the lack of cash – at least she’s well turned out, her figure still good for her age, her stunning breasts still shapely, her recent pedicure money well-spent.

Most often when Adele was exposed, or shamed, she turned for courage to the moment every actor knew: the moment on stage, entirely yours, waiting in the pitch-dark before the lights came up, the most powerful privacy a person could have. The fear drained away and adrenaline replaced it, and you were ready on your mark, in the darkness….In that moment of taut, pure potential, everything, everyone, was yours.

Jude doesn’t expect a lot from Adele, but has made a list none the less and the three crack on, each imagining the past, their petty grievances, their fears and insecurities. They don’t seem to be getting along at all – was it only Sylvie who kept them all connected?

The Weekend is a wonderful story about friendship and the odd ties that bind it, the feelings that threaten to break it, told in brilliant, witty prose. I hadn’t expected to like it as much as I did, but found myself drawn into a story about three women in the autumn years of their lives – a time when there may not be many more chances for new horizons, but still, who knows? There is just enough plot to keep things bubbling along, with some revelations towards the end that bring things to a head.

I loved the way Wood creates physical discomfort that mirrors the discomfort of the characters’ interactions: the rusty inclinator – a lift-like contrivance that clunks its passengers up to the house; a drenching storm; Wendy’s uncomfortable sandals; Adele caught out needing a pee at the beach with no facilities in sight; anything to do with the dog, Finn. And clearing out a house you have all those years of accumulated junk – the flotsam and jetsam that make a life – now decaying and useless.

It all adds up to a brilliant read, which reminded me a little of Jane Gardam, another writer who has created some brilliant older characters (see Old Filth trilogy), or maybe it was the similar wry tone. The Weekend earned Wood a spot on the Stella Prize shortlist and I will be keeping her on my radar, eager to see what she comes up with next. A four and a half out of five read from me.

Book Review: Mum and Dad by Joanna Trollope

Sometimes when you come to a hiatus in your reading, something a little familiar is just what you need to get going again. Mum & Dad is the twenty-first novel by Trollope dealing with everyday life, family and relationships. You might say they follow a well-worn path. Often a couple, their family or friends, are tested by some bolt from the blue, leaving them to dig deep, examine themselves and their relationships with those around them to find a way forward.

In the case of Mum & Dad, the family is the Beachams, an old family going back to the Domesday Book, with a more recent tradition of naming their first born son Gus. Monica Beacham, who loathed her domineering father-in-law refused in a rare act of defiance and so named her first son Sebastian. If only Monica had continued to be more of her own person, as forty-plus years later we find her with her husband in Spain, where Gus has become an award-winning wine-maker and at seventy-tree is a grumpy old man. And at the start of the book, a grumpy old man who has just had a stroke. Think bear with a toothache.

Monica finds herself in a panic – how to manage the winery and deal with Gus, a husband from whom she has become increasingly estranged. At least she has Pilar, her faithful housekeeper and then there’s younger son Jake who seems only too willing to abandon his life in London to rush out to help her. If only her older children were on board with that idea. Parked in English boarding schools when their parents moved to Spain, while younger brother Jake got to stay with Mum and Dad, there is an undercurrent of resentment. It doesn’t help that Sebastian’s wife Anna just doesn’t get along with Monica – Anna is too controlling, Sebastian never taken seriously by his now teenage boys, Marcus and Dermot. Lately Sebastian feels Anna doesn’t much like him anymore. He’s a bit of a sad sack.

Monica also has a niggling guilt over her daughter Katie, who was miserable at her boarding school, and must have felt abandoned by her parents while Monica played the dutiful wife. Katie has since thrown everything into her career – she’s a successful lawyer – but her family of three daughters sometimes comes off second best, while she and partner Nic seem to be growing apart. But how can you be a good mother if you don’t have the experience of being cared for as a child?

As Monica and her three children have been all slowly drifting towards various kinds of discord and disaster, the catalyst of Gus’s stroke shocks them into all into taking stock. Eventually all three will visit their mother, with or without their spouses and children. They’ll have to connect with each other to find out what’s really going on and things may get a lot worse before they begin to get better. It’s a classic Trollope story, but also a very satisfying one. What makes it work for me are the characters. Not only do they have depth and interesting interplay with their families, they each grow and develop through the book. They’re not always all that likeable, but they seem very real.

I whizzed through Mum & Dad, enjoying the enfolding drama and the settings which switch between London and Spain. And as I read, I remembered that the other thing I like about Trollope is that her books are easy to relate to, picking up changing social conventions and idioms. She shows really well how different generations within a family see things and what they can teach other, even the youngest has her say. Trollope’s books only come out every couple of years, but when they do, I know I will find them worth the wait. A four out of five star read from me.

Book Review: On Turpentine Lane by Elinor Lipman

The genre of On Turpentine Lane a little hard to define. In the end I decided it was part chick-lit, part comedy of manners and part mystery – in this case a delicious concoction, particularly when seasoned with Lipman’s sharp and witty writing.

The story is told from the point of view of Faith Frankel, who has returned from the big city to live in her home town and work at her old school, writing thank you notes to sponsors. I didn’t know there were jobs like that, but there are others in her department who are tasked with benefactors of a higher order, including Nick, her office-mate and fellow conspirator.

While Faith’s fiancé is off walking across America to find himself, she buys a cute but run-down cottage on Turpentine Lane, while said fiancé posts pictures on social media of himself with attractive women. Meanwhile, Faith’s parents are having marital problems, her father leaving his job in insurance to reinvent himself as a painter – specialising in Chagall knock-offs personalised for the buyer with images of their children or pets. Then there’s the worry of Faith’s brother, who has never managed to feel confidant dating new women after divorcing his faithless ex.

Mystery arrives in the form of some abandoned junk found in Faith’s attic: an old cradle and pictures of twin babies labelled with their birthdates and the date two weeks later, the time they were ‘taken’. The assumption that she is looking at pictures of two dead babies and stories of how the previous occupant murdered her husbands sets Faith on a quest of discovery. As you can imagine, she doesn’t feel all that comfortable alone in her home anymore, but help comes in the form of amiable Nick, kicked out by his girlfriend for failing to propose and needing a room.

Throw in some office politics and there’s a lot going on for poor beleaguered Faith, and the plot just crackles along. The bonus of the sparky, intelligent writing means there’s a lot to enjoy. Elinor Lipman has written a dozen novels – On Turpentine Lane comes in at number eleven – and I am happy at the thought of checking out the others. If they are half as good as this one they are worth a look. The reading of this audiobook by Mia Barron was suitably bright and had me chuckling as I listened. Four out of five from me.

Book Review: Anyone for Seconds?

9781784297985Anyone for Seconds? is a follow-up book to Laurie Graham’s first novel about TV chef, Lizzie Partridge. Perfect Meringues came out twenty years ago, so it’s been a long wait, but worth it as Lizzie is a heap of fun.

As the story begins, Lizzie is feeling like she’s on the scrap-heap. Her former boyfriend Tom, such a nice chap, seems to have made domestic arrangements elsewhere and she’s never resurrected her TV career since that on-air food-fight in Perfect Meringues. Now Global magazine has just axed her What’s Cooking? column. It’s the last straw. In a desperate bid to be missed, Lizzie heads for the train station and on a whim lands up at a hotel in Aberystwyth.

It’s November, so the seaside town doesn’t have a lot of sightseers. There is a furry conference on, though, and before her return a week later, Lizzie hooks up with a racoon with connections to her past. Back in Birmingham, it’s as if she never left: her elderly mother still ignores her, obviously preferring her younger brother Philip; she has to make appointments just to talk to her high-flying lawyer daughter, Ellie; there’s a mouse in the kitchen and the bills are piling up.

Some chance encounters and a few random events shake up Lizzie’s life so that by the end of the book there’s a promise of new beginnings. Along the way, there are plenty of laugh-out-loud moments. Anyone for Seconds? is such a fun read and it reminded me of what I liked so much about Graham’s contemporary fiction. Here’s why you should read it:

  • Lizzie Partridge knows her grub, so there are plenty of interesting food references, if you like that kind of thing. I do.
  • Lizzie is sixty-four. How many heroines do you know who are that age? But she’s terrific in so many ways, which is just as it should be – being sixty-four doesn’t stop her from having a go at romance and taking advantage of new opportunities. Not that this should be surprising. If you read Graham’s Dog Days and Glen Miller Nights you’ll know what I mean.
  • There’s a real feel for the Midlands tone of voice. You can hear the characters speaking without any annoying dropped consonants or quaint expressions. It just seems to happen in your head.
  • Graham is really good at dialogue, which makes the story bounce along. There are numerous phone calls, family dinners, and other verbal to-ings and fro-ings, including a pilot for a TV chat show.
  • Like everything Graham writes, the prose is sparkling, sharp and witty – humour guaranteed.

Four out of five for me; oh, and I wouldn’t pass up a third helping, either.

Quick Review: An Unsuitable Match by Joanna Trollope

match.jpgTrollope’s latest novel begins where many stories end – with a proposal of marriage. Rose and Tyler have fallen in love in their sixties, and within a few short months recognise that in spite of previous marriages for both of them, they’ve never felt like this before. The problems begin when they tell their children they plan to marry.

Rose has an elder daughter, busy mum and doctor, Laura, who at first supports her mother’s decision – it’s her life, after all. But twins, Nat and Emmy are appalled. Their reaction is emotional and soon legal advice and prenups are being talked about. Then there’s Mallory, Tyler’s American actress daughter, who is enjoying having her father around for once, but now it looks like he’s going to abandon her again, to live in England. No wonder she finds it difficult to answer his calls. Continue reading “Quick Review: An Unsuitable Match by Joanna Trollope”