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Here’s to the ladies who lunch – The Bridge Ladies by Betsy Lerner

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There was a moment in The Bridge Ladies, a memoir by author Betsy Lerner, when I actually laughed out loud in recognition. This woman is in my mind. It’s the most astute, perceptive book about that notoriously tricksy mother-daughter relationship that I’ve read in a long time. I will lap up all fiction with a mother daughter relationship at its heart, but this is different.

The eponymous Bridge Ladies are a group of Jewish women who came over to the author’s house to play cards every Monday at noon for over fifty years. They were a source of endless fascination to the young Betsy with their matching accessories, perfectly groomed in hose and heels, their ‘hair frosted, patent leather pocketbooks with clasps as round as marbles.’ Young Betsy loves the ritual, helping to put away their coats, trying to sneak the candy from little glass dishes. She really captures the childlike wonder of looking into the adult world, the mystery of the score pad being like a riddle out of Alice in Wonderland. But as a teenager, feeling trapped in American suburbia, she grows scornful of them and their attitudes.

Grown up Betsy’s relationship with her now widowed mother, Roz, is complicated. It is fractious, Betsy thinking her mother is being constantly critical, knowing what buttons to press, never feeling good enough. The thought of moving to be nearer to her sends her into a frenzy.

may 011Once when Betsy was giving a dinner party, knowing her dinner service was tarnished, her mother shows up with a tub of silver polish and offers to clean it for her. She explodes, terrifying her daughter, and has to retire to bed in sobbing frustration. It wasn’t about the polish. When she later recounts it to her friend, expecting her to side with her, she says,’ God, I wish my mother would polish my silver.’

After Roz has surgery, Betsy helps care for her and the Bridge Ladies all turn up. Now all in their eighties, they visit her in rotation, never missing a slot, bringing brownies and cookies and meals. Betsy is taken aback by their loyalty; would her friends, far flung and connected sometimes by only the threads of social media, do the same for her? What makes these bonds so strong?

In a bid to understand, she endeavours to find more about them all – Bette, Bea, Jackie and Rhoda, these women she doesn’t really know. She joins them for lunch, eventually goes to their houses, has to take Bridge lessons to keep up, and ends up doing it for three years.

What follows is a portrait of each of the women, both individually and in a wider social context; what makes people who they are and how they end up where they are, what choices they make, the difference between generations’ expectations. It’s also a fascinating insight into a particular time of American history and within a particular group. She’s very funny at her attempts to play cards with these pros(once, cooped up on a rainy Scottish holiday with two other couples, one couple attempted to teach us all how to play. It was beyond me. My husband said I bid on too many suits I’d never make good.)

These women didn’t meet to talk and catch up on each other’s lives. They didn’t even talk as they played – just the sound of the slapping down of cards and the strange ‘Morse code’ of their talking about suits and tricks. Lerner contrasts their silence with her own friends constant chatter and sharing (on subjects as diverse as Lena Dunham, mammograms, what constitutes cheating). It was the culture to not share secrets, to not talk about things – the death of a sibling, a terrible scarring childhood. ‘Pain,’ she says,’ was a private matter.’

It doesn’t really matter if the particular relationship between Betsy and Roz chimes with you or not; some of my friends get it when we talk about what things our mothers have done to reduce us to tears of rage, others think I’m lucky to have one. Others miss theirs terribly. You choose what you share accordingly. And that is sort of the point. It is about trying to understand, a meeting in the middle, not apportioning blame. It is about trying not to repeat patterns with your own child. What she eventually gains is an insight and is closer to her mother as a result. It is a tender portrait, for anyone that has or has ever had a mother.

It is told with humour – that dry, wry self deprecating humour which I love – and beautiful detail. Most of all it is told with love.

The Bridge Ladies by Betsy Lerner is out now, published in the UK by Pan Macmillan. Many thanks to them for my review copy.

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The Isle of Wight Literary Festival

At the weekend I attended the Isle of Wight Literary Festival which is only a short hop, skip and a jump from where I live on the south coast in Brighton. The festival is now in its fourth year but this was the first time for me.

The festival was billed as ‘something for everyone’ and there really was a fantastic line up of everyone from Mary Berry and Alan Titchmarsh, Peter and Dan Snow, Michael Morpurgo, and Simon Callow to writers such as Sophie Hannah. S J Watson, Victoria Hislop, Jill Mansell, Matt Haig, and Cathy Rentzenbrink. The non-fiction part of the programme was put together by Maggie Hanbury of The Hanbury Agency and the fiction side by Georgina Moore – the Communications Director at Headline. At one point, judging by my Twitter feed, it seemed like half the London publishing industry was there.

The whole event was beautifully organised. There were plenty of people (all volunteers) guiding you as to where to go, a marquee and food court charmingly decorated with cosy snugs to chat, and jazz playing.

The main venue where the majority of the events took place was Northwood House, a Grade II listed manor house set in parkland. The events took place in elegant high ceilinged drawing rooms, all scarlet and Wedgwood blue, gilt and dark wood panelling. There were other venues dotted around Cowes too but all within easy reach and clearly signposted (always a plus for someone with absolutely no sense of direction like me).

I could quite happily have gone for the duration (Wednesday until Sunday) but sadly could only get there for the weekend. Even so there was dozens of authors I wanted to see – Rachel Joyce, Patrick Gale, Polly Samson, Kate Hamer and Sarah Leipciger to single a few out..In the coming days, I’ll write up a snapshot of those events. All I need now is the dates for next year’s festival to put in my diary.

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Some progress at last

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I finally, finally, finally seem to be making some progress on my novel. After what seems a long time of false starts, long fallow periods, going up blind alleys, I now seem to be on the right track.

Famous last words probably.

The impetus has come really from going to the York Festival of Writing which I went to a couple of weekends ago. I deliberated for a long time about whether to go or not – could I justify the money, it involved lots of complicated childcare arrangements, but in the end I registered and paid. No going back. I entered the Best Opening Chapter competition just before it closed (and made it to the final seven, which was brilliantly encouraging.) Having to pitch your book to agents face to face against the clock was nerve jangling but taught me so much.

The weekend was packed with things – so many things I’m still processing them – but I had several light bulb moments – a workshop on backstory, one on dialogue, and one on psychic distance stand out. What was best was meeting so many like minded people – I had so many conversations with writers grappling with the same things, the same insecurities and challenges of time and juggling other commitments, but all consumed by writing and loving it. I couldn’t wait to get back and get on with it. Having people now actually wanting to see it is giving me that real impetus not to squander my chance.

Since then, I have been editing relentlessly – getting up earlier, going to bed later, snatching moments from here, there and everywhere. I have rewritten huge swathes of dialogue, altered timelines, chopped up backstory and threaded it through instead.

I read masses over the Summer and rearranged my bookshelves (I blame Marie Kondo) and will do a little recap in the next post as to what I enjoyed but I’m finding other people’s novels are unduly influencing what I’m writing. Especially the brilliant Margaret Atwood. And the BBC adaptation of The Go Between to be shown this Sunday has just destroyed a whole section of my plot.

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Mid Kondo

Rosemary for remembrance

My house is full of the smell of stocks – great towering bundles of cream, lilac and fuchsia. They have an almost cloying sweetness: it hits you as soon as you walk in.

I’m climbing the stairs to J’s room overlooking Parker’s Piece. Her room is awash with stocks in mason jars on her bureau, on the wooden floor, on her shelves. J wears granddad shirts with braces, chinos and brogues. That is her signature look. I don’t have a signature look. We take black and white photos of each other. She waves her hands around as she talks about Descartes and Rimbaud and I feel a whole new world opening up.

I pass a man in the street – he’s wearing Jazz. I’m back in Finsbury Park, in a dingy flat with ripped lino, in love with a man who doesn’t love me. The debt collectors rap on the door looking for the people who moved out in a hurry. My landlord lets himself in with no warning and tells me tales, perhaps lies, of being a stunt double for Bond films. The man I love leaves me a note on the kitchen table. I slide down the door, crying, until I’m sitting in a heap.

They’re tarmacking the road a few streets along from my house. Workmen are stirring cauldrons of black molasses with wooden poles. I’m seven, the tarmac is melting in the heat. My baby sister, in a lemon knitted bonnet, is in a Silvercross pram on the front lawn. She throws my Dad’s treasured Bugatti in a perfect arc. It lands on the road and is promptly squashed by a real car. My best friend and I pick up some of the tarmac that has split into bits and put it in a white paper bag. We tell A J from the cul de sac that it is our mother’s home made gingerbread. She takes a bite and cracks her teeth. I laugh before I feel ashamed.

Class of 83

misc i phone may 023It was my school reunion this past weekend. The Class of 83. I wanted to go and would have gone if I hadn’t been needed elsewhere. Now the photos and videos are rolling in. Some people joined in by Skype. Even though I knew what a lot of people are doing (and made and kept very close friends with some of them) it was different to see people moving and talking. They looked like themselves but not. It was weird to see the same mannerisms, the way someone folded their arms against their body, the same way of laughing. It shouldn’t be surprising, but it is.

As if this wasn’t enough to bring back those memories, I went to see The Falling. Directed by Carol Morley and with a soundtrack by Tracy Thorn, it’s the eerie, visually stunning and beguiling story of an outbreak of mass fainting and hysteria at an all girl’s boarding school set in the late 1960s. It conjured up so many memories: the elderly spinster teachers berating us for hoiking up our skirts, those very intense friendships, the rumours spreading like wildfire. I was back in our chemistry lab with its bunsen burners and Belfast sinks – the smell of sulphur mixed with charred wood (from those long handled pincer like pegs); the biology lab with its rows of frogs and hedgehogs suspended upside down in pickling jars.

My school was once an elegant Georgian manor house, built from honey coloured stone, with symmetrically placed sash windows, terraces, spiral staircases, and a warren of attic rooms – once the servants quarters. The bursar worked in the cellar, and reported us for holding seances down there. I see us in our stupid bottle green tulip-shaped bonnets which obscured your line of vision when you turned your head to the left, to the right. They had to ban them when a girl was killed crossing the road. I still don’t know if that’s apocryphal.

And finally, because these things always come in threes I find, I stumbled across this project called Yearbook. (listen here on Soundcloud). It’s an ongoing project by Luke Wiget interviewing writers and the first is an interview with an author called Darcey Steinke (who I’ve only just discovered but Sister Golden Hair is how I’d like to be able to write). It throws up all sorts of interesting questions about how writers mine their own lives for material, how people saw you versus how you saw yourself. We didn’t have Yearbooks – they’re not really done in the UK. I still have my autograph book though – the candy coloured pages are warped like a Marcel Wave. On the last day of school, I fell (or was I pushed?) into the pond onto a hidden bed of jagged glass from discarded school milk bottles and cut my leg through to the bone. The scar on my shin, listed on my passport, serves as a constant reminder.

The Girl in the Red Coat – book review

You know how sometimes the voice just leaps off the page and grabs you in certain books? That’s what happened to me on the first page of The Girl In the Red Coat.

I’d mentally bookmarked this book as one to read after The Observer picked the author, Kate Hamer, as one of their New Faces of Fiction 2015 back in early January, and on Twitter there was a real buzz about it. But when it came to it, I had a curious sense of resistance. Another book about a missing child.

But this book is nothing like I thought. It is so much more.

The Girl in the Red Coat is the story of Beth, a single mother, and her eight year old daughter, Carmel. She has a fractious relationship with her ex, Paul, who has a new partner Lucy. Having had sporadic contact, he suddenly appears after five months to take Carmel out. In addition, Beth no longer speaks to her parents and Carmel doesn’t see them any more, but we don’t know why. These fractured relationships Hamer describes are so convincing and well drawn. There is none of the ‘perfect lives are shattered’ theme here.

On the day Carmel goes missing, Beth wants her to stay close, Carmel feels tied to her, straining at the leash. Dressed in a red coat, she keeps an eye out for that flash of scarlet as she browses the bookstall at a story teller’s fair. We know it is coming, because we have been told from the start, but the whole sequence detailing when she actually disappears, is brilliantly written, capturing that rising tide of hysterical panic, when time seems to slow down. The circumstances in which she is abducted are chillingly plausible; she is taken by a man posing as her estranged grandfather, pretending her mother has had an accident who says he will drive her to the hospital.

The narrative is split between Beth’s point of view and Carmel’s and this, for me, is where the real strength of the book lies. I think you know when a child narrator’s voice is authentic or not and this one was utterly captivating. The ways she sees the world, the similes she uses, are all just perfect. When she finds comfort in the familiarity of the 57 Varieties label on a can of baked beans in her strange and bewildering new surroundings, I was floored for a moment.

Beth and Carmel go on their separate journeys both literally and emotionally and yet neither, particularly Carmel, took the journey I was expecting. The passage of time is beautifully rendered. It was hard not to just rush to the end to see how it resolved.

That push-me-pull-you mother and daughter relationship is beautifully expressed throughout, capturing all its nuances and complexities, something I find endlessly fascinating. I remember vividly feeling like Carmel (and getting lost for hours and hours at Badminton Horse Trials when I got to be driven round the grounds in a police car ) and also now with my own daughter who has had a succession of red coats because she wanted to be like Little Red Riding Hood and I wanted to be able to spot her on the far side of the park. The time I lost her on Witterings Beach is still the longest twenty minutes of my life. It’s that universal struggle of how you balance keeping them safe with not letting anxiety rule your life. And moreover, theirs.

There is so much to think about in this book, the way different people handle grief differently, the apportioning of blame, the way friends rally round, or say stupid but well intentioned things, about moving on and not moving on. What we will, if we were parted, remember of each other.

Thanks to Faber & Faber for my review copy.

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Still Alice by Lisa Genova – book review

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I’ve been consciously shying away from books and films with the subject of Alzheimer’s since the end of last Summer, when my father passed away from the disease. Whether it was selfish or self preservation I’m not sure because before that moment I had greedily read everything I could on the subject in an effort to understand what was happening. I read non fiction such as Where Do Memories Go: Why Dementia Changes Everything by Sally Magnusson, novels such as Samantha Harvey’s The Wilderness and Emma Healey’s Elizabeth is Missing. The disease took him on a long, slow, inexorable descent, horrible to witness, so I opted to try and forget.

With all the publicity surrounding the film Still Alice, crowned by Julianne Moore’s Oscar win on Sunday (an actor I have long admired) I felt ready to read the book upon which the film is based.

Still Alice, by author Lisa Genova, is the story of Dr Alice Howland, a well liked and respected Harvard professor who has a doctorate in psychology, with specific expertise in linguistics. She loves her job; her identity is bound up in it. Coupled with this she has a husband, John, who has an equally demanding career, and three grown up children. One day, during a lecture with the audience waiting expectantly, she is totally flummoxed when she cannot think of a particular word.

A few more instances of unsettling memory lapses occur but still she puts it down to stress, being busy, to possible menopausal symptoms or lack of sleep.

Next, more frightening, is when she is out for her usual run, in a place not a mile from her home where she runs every day and in a place where she has lived for twenty five years, she suddenly has no idea where she is. It is not so much she is lost, as she feels totally disoriented. Like a panic attack, this sense of uneasy disconnected dread is described so well.

After a complete and through series of MRIs and tests and assessments (which Genova says in the author’s notes that she truncated out of necessity otherwise the book would have run to many more pages) she is given the totally shattering diagnosis of early onset Alzheimer’s. She is just fifty years old.

At first she cannot believe it and rages and rails against it, keeping it secret from her colleagues. (They begin to think she has a substance abuse problem). She experiences a sense of shame and growing isolation. In an affecting scene, which brought back vivid personal memories, she visits a dementia unit which is likely to be her future. There is no one at all her age. She tries to find a support group but there is nothing for people with early on-set Alzheimer’s sufferers, so she sets one up herself.

There are some blackly comic episodes where Alice ransacks the entire house, even reduced to spilling and rummaging through the contents of a bin on the floor, looking for something – only she cannot remember what it is she is looking for, or find the noun to tell her husband what it is, and another where she surprises her neighbour by appearing in her kitchen, thinking it is her own.

The spark for the idea for the book came from Genova’s grandmother who had Alzheimer’s in her eighties but it made her think what it would be like to actually know you had it – before the disease really takes hold, when you are still able to understand, or have periods of lucidity. The real strength in the book is remaining with Alice’s viewpoint. We are always in her head.  She is perhaps the ultimate unreliable narrator. Her doctor gives her a series of questions to answer ; where does she live, how many children does she have etc. It is the reader who sees she can no longer answer them, when she calls her daughter ‘the actress’ instead of by her name, Lydia, when she can hear conversations going on around her but only loosely realise they are about her.

Actual people who are going through this have vouched for its veracity – surely the highest compliment there is. People with early on-set Alzheimer’s are nowhere to be seen in the media or discussion, and Genova says she wanted to give this invisible group a voice. I came away with a renewed sense of the importance to treat people living with dementia with care and sensitivity – that they are not a bunch of symptoms, to be hidden away in care homes. Its message is that whatever ravages the disease takes on the brain, that the essence of the person – their soul, their spirit, their ‘me – ness’ – whatever you want to call it – remains intact.

Although Still Alice was unbearably bleakly sad, it was also life affirming. When everything is systematically stripped away, what is left is her emotional connections with her family. What remains is love.

I know I will see the film and cry for the fictional Alice, for all the real ‘Alice’s, for all the families going through it, for my Dad.

Shining a light on it can only help.

 

 

 

Thanks to Simon and Schuster UK for my review copy.