When your best friends don’t get on …

Gossip by Beth Gutcheon

gossip UK trade paperback cover

When the UK edition of Beth Gutcheon’s 2012 novel came out last year, I couldn’t resist the cover and oversized paperback format. However, that gorgeous cover is no more than a single snapshot in the lives of the three women it follows …

We start in 1960, when Loviah French is fifteen and enrolling at Miss Pratt’s – a boarding high school for girls in New York. Lovie’s family are from Maine, and she’s a country girl having a hard time at settling into this exclusive school that her folks can’t really afford.

Thank heavens for Dinah.  They met on their first day at school and will remain best of friends for life through thick and thin. Dinah’s father is a teacher at the school in an exclusive gated community in New England, so Dinah is outside that set, but a keen observer of how it all works, and she takes Lovie under her wing.

Lovie’s other real friend is Avis – the shy only daughter of a socialite couple. They also meet at Miss Pratt’s when Avis, three years older, is assigned to be a mentor to Lovie in the classes in etiquette and conversation leading up to coming out as debutantes. Although Avis and Dinah know of each other, at this stage they are individually friends with Lovie.

Lovie narrates their story and tells how they all came by their careers – Lovie being apprenticed to a dress designer, and eventually setting up an exclusive boutique of her own; Dinah becoming a journalist and having a successful gossip column; and Avis indulging her love of art being an expert at an auction house.

It’s 1983 and Dinah and Avis are/have been married/divorced and had children, Lovie is still single, but does have a devoted lover – shame he can’t leave his wife. Anyway, Lovie sets up a lunch for the three of them…

‘Doesn’t it seem a century ago that we were all locked up at Miss Pratt’s? To me it seemed like something out of Jane Eyre.’
‘Oh,’ said Avis gratefully, ‘that’s just what I thought! I was so homesick I wanted to weep, most of the time. …

… Avis and I were warming to our topic. She said, ‘I was used to having the city as my backyard. I missed the Met, I missed the symphony, I missed the art house cinema on weekends.’
‘I thought the whole thing was kind of a hoot,’ said Dinah.
I knew perfectly well she had hated every minute of it. Avis, caught up short, didn’t seem to know what to do.
‘You did not,’ I said.
‘I did. I decided to see if I could break every rule in their pompous little book without getting kicked out, and except for never having a boy in my roo, I think I did it.’
Avis look bewildered. …

… ‘Well,’ I said, ‘the world has changed so much, it all seems quaint now. Think of life before the Pill, or Our Bodies, Ourselves, or Ms. magazine. Before women could be doctors or lawyers-‘
Avis broke in, ‘Isn’t it true? And it’s not just women in professions … in our parents’ world, the professions themselves weren’t really acceptable, were they? Somehow gentlemen lawyers were all right, but when you were growing up, did your parents know doctors or schoolteachers socially?’
My heart had sunk into my shoes. I was saying to myself, Dinah, don’t say it, please don’t say it, when Dinah said, ‘My father is a schoolteacher.’

So Avis and Dinah could never be friends, and Lovie sees them separately through the decades. It is not until Avis’ daughter Grace meets Dinah’s son Nicky and marriage beckons, that they are forced to develop an arms-length relationship. There is a lot of drama along the way as families change over the decades, and it takes us up through 9/11 to a shocking climax that will shock all three to the core. Lovie tells it all.

gossip-pb-300As a result, this novel does rather meander through the years, but the author’s development of the three main characters is such that we do want to follow their lives. Avis may be rich, but she does have difficulties at home; Dinah comes unstuck as a gossip columnist when she uncovers unethical goings on; and Loviah is there throught thick and thin – their loyal supporter. Poor Lovie, she gets used by everyone including her best friends. You can sense that although she loves her gentleman friend, she misses having a family of her own, so makes sure that she is the best Godmother her friends’ children could have.

Beth Gutcheon’s narrator, Lovie, is a wonderful character. She has an eye for detail, setting the scene as the years go by through the fashions and styles of the day.  Dinah is the loud and confident friend that all quieter girls need to bring them out of their shells – but she is rather apt to shoot her mouth off. It was shy and sad Avis I felt for – despite being rich, she proves that money isn’t everything.

The blurb suggests that this novel is ‘in the tradition of Mary McCarthy’s classic The Group, however I (still) haven’t read that yet.  The Group is set much earlier, during the 1930s, but I could compare this book with other New York stories – Jacqueline Susann’s Valley of the Dolls and Amor Towles’ Rules of Civility. Gossip holds up well to the former, but I did like the Towles more.

Once we got past the schooldays, I really enjoyed reading this novel, absorbing myself in the lives of these three women.  Lovie dispenses her secrets gradually and the slowburn was worth staying with making this a satisfying read. (7.5/10)

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Gossip by Beth Gutcheon. Atlantic Books 2013, Trade paperback, 288 pages. Std paperback now available too.
Valley Of The Dolls (VMC) by Jacqueline Susann
Rules of Civility by Amor Towles
The Group (VMC) by Mary McCarthy

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Woman, interrupted …

The Pumpkin Eater by Penelope Mortimer

The Pumpkin Eater

This painful novel, her seventh published in 1962, is widely regarded as Penelope Mortimer’s most famous. It was filmed with Anne Bancroft, Peter Finch and James Mason in the leading roles and, it is the Oscar-nominated Bancroft who graces the cover of the Penguin that I inherited from my Mum.

The Pumpkin Eater is the story of a woman on the verge of a breakdown, marital and emotional. It starts with the a woman, Mrs Armitage (we never hear her forename), visiting a psychiatrist:

‘When I was a child my mother had a wool drawer. It was the bottom drawer in a chest in the dining-room and she kept every scrap of wool she had in it. You know, bits from years ago, jumpers she’d knitted me when I was two. Some of the bits were only a few inches long. Well, this drawer was filled with wool, all colours, and whenever it was a wet afternoon she used to make me tidy her wool drawer. It’s perfectly obvious why I tell you this. There was no point in tidying the drawer. The wool was quite useless. You couldn’t have knitted a tea-cosy out of that wool, I mean without enormous patience. She just made me sort it out for something to do, like they make prisoners dig holes and fill them up again. You do see what I mean, don’t you?’
‘You would like to be something useful,’ he said sadly. ‘Like a tea-cosy.

She is in her late thirties, and has an unspecified but fairly large number of children by several fathers of ages from just three up to late teens. She is currently married to Jake who is a £50,000 per annum screen-writer and is as prone to having affairs as she is to having babies. It is when she meets the husband of an actress with whom Jake has apparently had an affair on location that things come to a head.

When they married, Jake was not yet successful. Many thought him mad to take on an already twice-married woman with a whole brood of children, and then adding to it. For Jake the reality of what he has let himself in for results in him having to work extremely hard to support them all, and although he says he loves her, he relieves his stress with little affairs. Having married too young, she has been happiest when pregnant and surrounded by her babies – it’s what she does best.

The book is in turns shocking, funny and moving as their emotional baggage ripples through this dysfunctional family towards its surprising conclusion.

Mortimer Family

The Mortimer Family, Penelope is at the back.

I can’t say I particularly enjoyed reading The Pumpkin Eater, but neither did I dislike it. Mortimer’s writing of the narrator Mrs Armitage, despite her melancholia, has bite and some black humour. I had heard before reading that the novel was very autobiographical – Mortimer had six children by four fathers herself, and her marriage to John Mortimer was tempestuous. It almost felt as if you were prying into her own relationships, so it wasn’t entirely comfortable to read. (7/10)

For another take on this novel, read the review by Alex in Leeds

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Source: Inherited. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Pumpkin Eater by Penelope Mortimer, NYRB paperback, 222 pages.

Is That All There Is? …

All That Is by James Salter

all-that-is

I must admit that until I looked him up on Wikipedia I had no idea that James Salter was 87 and still going strong, or that he was such a lion of American literature.  He published his first novel in his thirties after a career in the USAF.  I was vaguely aware that he was well thought of, but that’s as far as it went!  All That Is is his latest novel, and it’s the story of the life and loves of one man…

Philip Bowman returns from the war, having served in the Navy off Okinawa, and slips into the world of publishing as a book editor in a small firm in New York.  He meets a beautiful blonde girl, Vivian, from a well-off family in Virginia. They wed…

Bowman was happy or felt he was, she was his, a beautiful woman or girl.  He saw life ahead in regular terms, with someone who would be beside him.  In the presence of her family and friends he realized that he knew only one side of her, a side that attracted him but that was not her entire or essential self. Behind her as he looked was her unyielding father and not far away from him her sister and brother-in-law. They were all complete strangers. Across the room, smiling and alcoholic, was her mother, Caroline.  Vivian caught his eye and perhaps this thoughts and smiled at him, it seemed understandingly. The unsettled feeling disappeared.  Her smile was living, sincere.  We’ll leave soon, it said.  That night though, having driven to the Hay-Adams Hotel in Washington, wearied by the events of the day and unaccustomed to being a wedded couple, they simply went to sleep.

That chaste extract above doesn’t accurately reflect their initial relationship, however, but ultimately this marriage won’t last.

Bowman has an affair whilst abroad on a trip in Europe with Enid, an Englishwoman. Theirs is a lusty union, continued on subsequent trips. Vivian eventually calls it a day with Philip without ever knowing about this infidelity, their relationship has just run its course.  But, it soon becomes clear that Enid is not never going to marry him and they let things peter out. Then he meets a woman in a taxi queue at the airport whom, he thinks, might be the one…

Christine, is separated from her Greek husband, and has a sixteen year old daughter. They are terribly in lust with each other, and soon move in together after Christine finds a perfect little house by the ocean.  Phil keeps his apartment in New York though.  This set-up is set-up to fail, but I won’t explain how.

Although this novel is all about Philip’s search for love, it’s no romance.  Phil reminds me slightly of Mad Men‘s Don Draper – he works hard, and plays hard when given the chance.  It’s a surprisingly lusty book – all the encounters are written from Philip’s point of view, they’re manly but not overly graphic!

But there’s far more to Philip’s life than the sex. There’s life in the publishing industry, less about the mechanics – more about the personalities, including his boss who described his firm as ‘a literary house … but only by necessity.’  It’s at the publishers that Philip meets Neil Eddins the other Editor, who becomes his best friend. There are families too – Philip’s mother Beatrice in particular is a presence and somewhat steadying influence on him.  The decades flow by.  Bowman lives, works and loves, he suffers and comes through whatever life throws at him, and in between we revisit those we encounter before – older and wiser.

Salter’s writing style is not showy, but the language is precise, sentences tend to be short.  He doesn’t signpost dialogue with he said, she said for the most part either, leaving you to work out who’s saying what.

I didn’t warm to Bowman much, although I could sympathise when things didn’t go his way. Although I did like the style, it all felt a bit remote and almost ordinary.  All that is ended up leaving me with a feeling of is that all there is? (7/10)

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I received a review copy from Amazon Vine. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
All That Is by James Salter, pub 23rd May 2013 by Picador, Hardback 290 pages.

 

My Policeman, Your Policeman …

My Policemanby Bethan Roberts

This is a story of two people who love the same man.  Firstly Marion, who fell for Tom, the brother of her best friend, the first time she saw him …

He was leaning in the doorway with the sleeves of his shirt rolled up to the elbows, and I noticed the fine lines of muscle in his forearms. He couldn’t have been more than fifteen – barely a year older than me; but his shoulders were already wide and there was a dark hollow at the base of his neck. His chin had a scar on one side – just a small dent, like a fingerprint in plasticine – and he was wearing a sneer, which even then I knew he was doing deliberately, because he though he should, because it made him look like a Ted; but the whole effect of this boy leaning on the door frame and looking at me with his blue eyes – small eyes, set deep – made me blush so hard that I reached down and plunged my fingers back into the dusty fur around Midnight’s ears and focused my eyes on the floor.

The other, later, is Patrick.  As the book opens, Marion is setting down her story, telling it for Patrick who has had a stroke.

It’s Brighton in the 1950s, and Thomas – Tom, has returned from his National Service to become a trainee policeman.  Marion is now a school teacher, and strikes up a friendship with Tom who offers to teach her to swim. They become a couple, but their relationship is not exactly romantic.

One day, Tom takes Marion to the museum to meet a friend of his, Patrick, one of the curators.  Tom has a naive appreciation for art that belies his tough rugged exterior; Marion goes along with it.  Patrick becomes a regular feature of the couple’s lives, and still Marion doesn’t suspect … or does she?

Patrick takes up the story in his diaries, and from him, we get to see how circumspect and brave he has to be to maintain a gay relationship during this time when it was illegal – and with a policeman too.

The narrative alternates between the two, each telling us about their policeman. Tom is sometimes quite difficult to read – he has a strong physical presence, but is very laconic, very self-contained and self-absorbed. Our sympathies lie not with him, but with the two people who love him.  As their lives pan out, and things take on a dramatic turn which I can’t tell you about, I was so caught up in these lives that I found a tear running down my cheek.

This evening I went to hear Bethan talk about the book at Abingdon Library – she’s a local girl and worked in the library for a while before doing a creative writing MA, and moving to Brighton where she’s now based.

Her previous two novels took their inspiration from real stories and people – The Pools from a local murder, and The Good Plain Cook from the life of Peggy Guggenheim. My Policeman also took its inspiration from a real life – that of E M Forster, his posthumously published novel Maurice, and Forster’s relationship with Bob Buckingham, a policeman, whose wife May nursed Forster after he suffered a stroke.

Bethan transposed the bones of that story from the 1930s into the 1950s for the novel. She enjoyed researching the period, getting lots of extra tips from her mother and aunt about growing up in that decade. The attention to detail shows.

Any novel that can move me to tears has to get my recommendation. I loved this book. (10/10)

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I received my copy to review from Amazon Vine. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
My Policeman by Bethan Roberts – Vintage Paperback, Aug 2012, 352 pages.
The Pools, The Good Plain Cook – both by Bethan Roberts.
Maurice (Penguin Classics) by E M Forster