Friday, 29 March 2013

Habits of the House, by Fay Weldon
Fay Weldon needs no introduction:  not only is she a literary household name, but she also gained fame in the British advertising world before she started her writing career for coining the unforgettable phrase on Billboards:  ‘Go to Work on an Egg.’  What a woman!
‘Habits of the House’, we are told, is the first book of a trilogy – which is a good thing, for this is a most charming story, with characters that any reader would love to meet again;  the only problem being that Ms Weldon’s novel bears a great resemblance to the ubiquitous ‘Downton Abbey’, and unkind critics could say that she was perhaps trying to ride that most successful  bandwagon:  after all, imitation is the most sincere form of flattery but that said, Ms Weldon still manages, in spite of many similarities, to produce a different slant on manners and mores – and the hypocrisies -  of life upstairs and downstairs at the turn of the 19th century.
The Earl of Dilberne has reached a financial crisis:  because of various unwise investments, not to mention trying to keep up with the gambling habits of the Prince of Wales, he has run through his own fortune as well as the enormous dowry his wife, Lady Isobel, brought into their marriage:  the time has come for drastic action.  There is nothing else for it but to marry off Viscount Arthur, their playboy son to someone with a LOT of money.  And at the close of the season, there are not many young heiresses to choose from – except Minnie O’Brien, recently arrived from America with her distressingly vulgar mother, openly shopping for A Title. 
Arthur keeps a mistress, whom, he learns in due course  (to his horror), used to service his father.  He is amenable to marrying to save the family bacon (his tailor bill is ENORMOUS – one wishes that they would stop sending so many reminders for payment!), but he still requires, in fact expects, that his blushing bride will be a virgin.  His contempt and disdain are absolute when he discovers that Minnie has A Past, and an unsavoury one at that.  The fact that he keeps a woman for his pleasure is not, to him, in any way a double standard:  that is what gentlemen do.  Ladies are not afforded the same freedom.
Add to the mix the private lives of the people who look after and service the needs of the upper crust:  Grace the ladies maid, Reginald the footman,  Mr and Mrs Neville, the butler and cook;  they all know a lot more about their employers than one could ever dream, and Eric Baum, the Earl’s lawyer, a Jew, laments to himself as he swears revenge – after too many slights – ‘the Israelites may be God’s children, but God is an Englishman.’
Well said, Ms Weldon:  bring on Book Two!

Oh Dear Sylvia, by Dawn French
Silvia Shute is in the intensive care unit, critically ill with a serious head injury caused by a fall from her balcony.  Her elder sister Jo and estranged family, ex-husband Ed and furious daughter Cassie (son Jamie is with the British Marines in Afghanistan and states that he couldn’t care if she lives or dies) reluctantly visit her room to keep vigil, and over the next ten days Sylvia’s virtues and faults (and there are many) are revealed:  she has divorced not just Ed, but her children, too, has sold the family home after saying she wouldn’t, and jettisoned Cassie (pregnant at the age of 16) to sink or swim in The Real World.  Jamie is so hurt and angry at the inexplicable dissolution of his home that he immediately joins the Military, not caring what happens to him – ‘Take THAT, you bitch!”
Yep, Silvia has many enemies, but all is not revealed until two thirds of the way through the story – just why she decided to reject her family, and who took their place, and the price she paid for her choice.
Dawn French is a much-loved TV star in this neck of the woods;  her reputation is stellar in Britain and she recently gained much praise for her foray into storytelling with the delightful ‘A Tiny Bit Marvellous’ (reviewed March 2011, see below), but it pains me to say that Ms French’s second novel isn’t up to the standard of the first:  there are some lovely characters in this book, but the story is spoilt because Ms French seemed bent on writing parts of the narrative as though scripting a TV Sitcom/Romcom.  Shame, shame, shame but I’m inclined to think that her editors should take the blame for some of the outright clunky stuff that escaped the net.
Ms French’s intentions were patently clear:  I am sure she wished, ultimately, to reflect upon the end of life, and how family and loved ones react to their loss;  how they say farewell, and how their lives change as a result:  sadly, this story doesn’t hit the mark.  I wish it had, because Ms French at her best is a great storyteller.  This book is like the weather – good in parts.
A Tiny Bit Marvellous, by Dawn French
There is no end to Ms. French’s myriad talents – quite apart from her superb comic skills as an actress she has now proven that she is also a writer of insight and wit, capturing effortlessly in her amber the 21st century family:  Mum Maureen Battle (Mo), capable and efficient, on-to-it child psychologist – except when it comes to her own children, about whom she clearly hasn’t a clue;  Dad or ‘Husband’ as Mo invariably refers to him, hovering lovingly in the background, keeping the wheels turning in ever so subtle ways in his efforts to provide a loving and stable environment for his family;  (he has a job, ‘doing something with computers’, but everyone seems to be vague as to its specifics);   Dora, about to turn 18 and full of teenage angst and self-loathing, is fretting about the humiliation of being dumped by her small but perfectly-formed boyfriend;  being a virgin;  being less than interested in a future career; and being FAT!  Last but not least, Peter:  call him Oscar please, as he is such a disciple of Mr Wilde that he is sure he is his reincarnation.  Peter is also tall, cherubic, flamboyant, academically brilliant and gay as a hat – and proud of it  - no gender angst for Mr. Peter;  in fact the only thing he agonises over is having to live in Pangbourne, the most deeply unfashionable place on earth.
  The novel is written in diary form, with each member of the family contributing their own thoughts and opinions (and some of them are hair-raising) about each other, and while some of the humour is laugh-out-loud funny (as we would expect from Ms French) there is also very shrewd and poignant observation of this flawed, Ipod, Iphone, Ipad, I want family – the problems they face are all too familiar to anyone who reads this charming, wise little story;  the dangers parents wish to protect  their children from are still the same, but stranger-danger has become Internet- danger in the 21st century,  and not always preventable.  Fortunately,  Dad/Husband/Den – that loving, unsung problem-solver extraordinaire – well, he only gets one chapter to narrate, but he saves the day, his family and his marriage:  what a Star!  Oh, and I nearly forgot (for shame!) to mention Nanna Pam, Mo’s loving mum, dispenser of sound common sense and wise council, and baker of everyone’s favourite cakes – and the yummy recipes are all at the back of the book.  Magic.    

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