Man-Made Fibre by Francine Stock
Many of you may know journalist and TV/radio presenter Francine Stock from her time on Newsnight some years ago, and later on Radio 4’s arts programme Front Row and the Film Programme which she still presents. She has also written a couple of novels and a history of film. Man-Made Fibre is her second novel which was published back in 2002.
Here I have to declare an interest. For over seventeen years I worked for chemical giant Du Pont which is based in Wilmington, Delawre. Du Pont are pioneers in the field of man-made fibres thanks to their employee Wallace Carothers who is credited with discovering nylon back in 1935. I was in the electronic materials division, far removed from the fibres group, but the company’s mid-20th century history is so steeped in all the advances in making synthetic materials that I couldn’t pass by this title.
I wasn’t sure what to expect either, and was pleased to find that despite the cover, this novel is not at all fluffy. In fact it reminds me of nothing so much as the TV series Mad Men. It’s set during the same years – the early 60s, has the same attention to detail and is a thoughtful exploration of the disintegration of a family. I couldn’t help but see Alan and Patsy as Don and Betty Draper (but English).
The story starts in suburbia. Alan and Patsy have three children and a nice house in a cul-de-sac which Patsy is transforming into her vision of a modern home…
And it was all beginning to come together. Through the serving hatch the eye could catch the golden tones of the living area-cum-dining-room-cum-study, altogether more convivial with the new wallpaper, diagonals again, the Scandinavian influence still effective. Open-plan but divided. Efficient yet decorative. With the duty to entertain that Alan’s job would increasing involve [...] there would be fresh chances to express their style. Patsy and Alan – the Hopkinses at home.
Patsy’s vision of being the perfect hostess is thrown into stasis with one phone-call. Alan is a scientist working on developing new fibres for NextGen, a small British company newly absorbed into the Lavenirre group based in Delaware (surely a ringer for Du Pont!). Alan’s potential new product has attracted the attention of the head office and he is summonsed to the USA. But once there, they decide to keep him and Patsy and the family will have to transfer with him.
Over in Delaware, Alan is unaware of the angst and upheaval this is causing to Patsy. He’s thrown himself into the American lifestyle – looked after by his company mentor Ray, a fibres marketing man – who is used to playing hard at the weekends…
Ray applies the same efficiency to work. He wants to look after Alan so that Alan can deliver for the firm – and for himself, of course. This division of the corporation is very exciting – has been for fifteen years or so, thanks to Dr Carothers and nylon. You people did wonderful stuff with Terylene, but with Dacron – well, you have to admit, Alan, we had the edge. And frankly, the ball is in our court now. We’re the only ones who have the muscle to deplot these new polyesters.
So Lavenirre is definitely based on Du Pont! Terylene and Dacron are both tradenames for PET – polyester terephthalate – commonly called polyester. ICI discovered polyester in 1941 and Terylene was their name for it, Dacron Du Pont’s version. No prizes for guessing which persists today – in fact ICI’s polyester business was subsumed into Du Pont’s in 1997.
The company is endlessly helpful in helping Patsy with all the business of moving. Alan’s boss, the slimy Fred Rookin, takes a personal interest – but it is his chauffeur Jon that does the legwork and catches Patsy’s imagination.
Patsy is always so together, slightly aloof and looked up to by her friends. The only people she lets go with slightly are her neighbours, Evie and Donald, an older couple who are honorary aunt and uncle to her children. Evie and Donald, childless, adore the kids, they also enjoy their life knowing that Donald who is older and more infirm won’t necessarily have much left. Occasionally Evie will take over the narrative to give an outsider’s view of the Hopkins household.
Change is always difficult – to manage it well, all involved have to embrace it, and Patsy doesn’t – at least not in the way that Alan hopes for. There are no easy answers in dealing with these family dilemmas and Stock doesn’t try to give any. As in Mad Men, you sense that there are to be no truly happy endings to this thoughtful and well-observed novel. (8.5/10)
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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Man-made Fibre by Francine Stock, pub 2002. Out of print but s/h copies available.