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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.


Rachel Joyce at the Isle of Wight Literary Festival

There are some authors who can, in the space of few seconds, make you cry hot tears and then make you roar with laughter. Rachel Joyce does this in her books and after seeing her for the first time in person, she can also do it in real life. As she walked into the room (which was packed) at the Isle of Wight Literary Festival, you could feel the warmth radiating towards her. Patrick Gale, the author, was asking the questions and they made a great double act full of laughter and wit, riffing brilliantly off each other.

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Although Joyce is on a book tour for The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy, you can’t really talk about that book without first talking about The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry (a huge international bestseller and shortlisted for the Man Booker prize) It’s the story of a recently retired man – an ordinary man – who goes out one morning to post a letter to a woman he once knew (Queenie) who is in a hospice in Berwick Upon Tweed. He then decides, on impulse, to walk the hundreds and hundreds of miles to see her. It struck a chord with so many people, at all stages of their lives, and we took him to our hearts.

Joyce was writing something else when she kept thinking about Queenie. She felt she had to give her her story, to give her her life – so she stopped what she was working on and began to write about her instead. The book is a companion piece to Harold Fry – not, she stressed, a sequel. She laughed that if she had thought about it more first, she perhaps wouldn’t have done it like that – as she had hemmed herself in by knowing it had to be set in a hospice, that Queenie can’t talk (the cancer has taken her voice) and that the timeframe was going to have to mirror exactly that set out in Harold Fry. And it does – it dovetails beautifully.

I didn’t know that the story for The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry had originally grown out of a radio play she wrote; Joyce has written many radio plays and also had a successful career as an actress before becoming a novelist. The actor Anton Rogers ( who I used to watch on TV in May to December as a child with my Dad) was Harold with Anna Massey and Niamh Cusack. She told some great stories about Rogers and his comic timing, how the noise of Harold walking through grass is made by swishing through brown tape, how he had phoned her up and said he was unable to do the naked swim. But it’s for radio! A film is still being talked about although the whole crowd roared when she said they had suggested John Travolta to be Harold. Jim Broadbent would be her choice although if it goes on much longer, she joked, she and her husband (also an actor) will be old enough to play the parts themselves.

She spoke about how to create tension punctured by comedy and how she was interested in putting ordinary people in situations they don’t know how to deal with, who then don’t say what needs to be said but will instead talk about, for instance, jam. She spoke movingly of her own father who was undergoing horrendous treatment for a tumour but would still, when she visited, be wearing a tie. He hated the water, was frightened of the water and couldn’t swim. but still wore yachting shoes. That set me off, the death of my own father so fresh and I could hear several people stifling sobs. A reading from the book which talked about telling your mother you love her before she dies had more people crying. But then she had everyone laughing again at an Amazon reviewer who had given the book 3* and she had been crushed, but had also, she found out, given 5* to a double bladed potato masher.

Everyone wanted to know when we could expect something new -and she spoke tantaslingly of a collection of short stories which are all set around Christmas leading up to New Year’s Eve – the first one featuring a mother on Christmas Eve not being able to cope with all the preparations (the sound of wry laughter from a lot of women) and then a minor character who was barely mentioned in that one takes centre stage in the next story- she loves the idea of passing the baton. Then there is a new novel which she is writing now.

I could have listened to her for hours – she is one of those people who are so engaging, self deprecating with great comic timing and a huge store of great anecdotes. She already has many loyal fans who can’t wait for her next book and will definitely have made a few more that day.

The Snow Garden is out November 5th

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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


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.

                                                    Mid Kondo

Mid Kondo

Fishbowl by Bradley Somer – book review

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Earlier this year I stayed in a high-rise hotel in a district of Manhattan, quite far off the tourist track. My window looked out onto a vast residential block. At dusk, a thousand lights came on. I wondered about them all in their little boxes stacked in lines.

This is the premise for Fishbowl, set in a 27 storey apartment block called the Seville on Roxy. It’s not specified where it is but it’s an archetypal block. The fishbowl of the title is also a literal fishbowl – Ian, a goldfish belonging to one of the residents, has taken a leap for freedom, plunging from his bowl, and as he falls towards the concrete sidewalk, he catches moments, freezeframed, in the lives of the various inhabitants. The reader needs to take a similar leap of faith and go with the fact that a goldfish is the novel’s main protagonist.

There is a grad student, and the owner of Ian, who is going to have to decide between his girlfriend and mistress, an agoraphobic phone sex worker, a pregnant woman on enforced bed rest who just wants the baby out so she can have an ice cream sandwich from her freezer and her construction worker boyfriend Danny, Jimenez the building’s stoical caretaker, Herman the homeschooled boy and Garth who is awaiting an important parcel. Each one of them is at a momentous point in their lives. Gradually we see all the little unexpected connections and interplays between them.

Whilst the narrative construction was very easy to follow, with very short chapters only advancing each characters story in tiny increments, as a device it is risky – if the reader is less invested in one particular story, you find yourself eager to get back to the one you are more interested in. And all the time Ian is falling (I liked the little picture of him on the margin of the text descending down the page like one of those flip books I had as a child).

Bradley’s Somer’s writing style is arch and mannered but it is suited to the tale ; he plays around with the authorial voice, telling you what’s going to happen and that Ian will hit the ground in Chapter 54. There are ruminations on time and space, philosophy and physics, risk and adventure. Overall, I was not really emotionally invested in any of the characters, but I’m not sure that matters. The whole literary device of the goldfish is distancing in itself but enables Somer to make some humorous but pertinent observations about life and death and everything in between.

Fishbowl is out now from Ebury Press. Thanks to them for my review copy. Follow Ian the goldfish on Twitter @goldfish_Ian

A Q&A with Laura Barnett – Author of The Versions of Us

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Laura Barnett is a journalist and theatre critic. Perhaps you read her touching piece in last weekend’s The Guardian about people finding love in their later years. You may not have noticed the byline. But now her debut novel –The Versions of Us – is garnering rave reviews. The book is one of those novels with universal appeal because it taps into your feelings about your life no matter at what stage you are. Everyone at some point wonders what might have been, if they had done things differently, taken another path. said yes instead of no or vice versa. It might not necessarily relate to a love affair, it might have been a quirk of fate that made you miss something or put you somewhere at a certain point in time.

In this novel, it is a random thing that sets everything off: Eva, a student in Cambridge, is cycling on her way to a tutorial, when a rusty nail in the road causes her to swerve. The story splits off into three different versions – does she meet Jim who stops to help or not, does she leave her actor boyfriend David for Jim or not? We travel from 1950s Cambridge up to almost the present day, taking in New York, Greece, Suffolk, Cornwall, and London along the way. None of the three stories pan out in the way you would have expected or maybe they do, because your view of how things work out for them is coloured by your own views of love, happiness, marriage, compromise, ambition, adultery to name a few.

I am delighted that Laura answered some of my questions

I understand that you wrote the book chronologically – plaiting the three parts together rather than attempting to ‘lift’ each timeline out. I think this very much shows as no narrative strand is dominant and I was equally invested in all three versions. Did you ever try it another way or did you always know this was the way to go?

You’re absolutely right – I did write the book chronologically, plaiting the three parts together as I went. This approach just seemed natural to me from the start. It never even occurred to me to, say, write the whole of version one before tackling versions two and three. I was aware from the beginning of the need to pace the novel carefully – of, to borrow a filmic term, the need to jump-cut from one version to the next, while at the same time holding the whole narrative in view. Throughout, I was trying to conceive of the novel as an organic whole, rather as the sum of three disparate parts.

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I love the fact it is a completely random quirk of fate that – a rusty nail in the road that punctures a bicycle tyre forcing Eva to swerve to avoid the dog and meet Jim. Do you have your own ‘what if’ moment that you can share?

I’m so glad you related to that. It was important to me from the start that we got the sense of how the course of our lives can turn on a dime; of how easily, even randomly, we find ourselves choosing one path over another. As for my own “what if” moment – well, my mum often jokes about the fact that, aged 21, she very nearly married a biochemist and moved to New Mexico, so I could very easily never have been born…

I really enjoyed reading some of your short stories (read them here) particularly ‘You’. What were the specific challenges you found when moving away from the short story format to the novel?

Thank you – I’m so happy to hear that. I do love writing short stories – it’s a chance to conjure a whole world in miniature – but I was actually drawn to the novel first. As a child, I’d get my mum to sew pieces of paper into little books, and I’d write the title of my next magnum opus on the cover – usually, as I recall, a highly derivative sequel to Narnia or the Famous Five. I rarely got past the first few chapters, but I seem to have always had the novel in mind as a format. Later, as an adult, I began writing novels as well as short stories, so my interest in both really evolved in tandem.

My favourite kind of fiction is also the kind that, as you say, “takes the world we know, and our own familiar, everyday lives and renders them rich and strange.’ citing Anne Tyler and Tessa Hadley as great examples. Is there one novel that you constantly go back to or wish you’d written?

Ah, there are many! I do adore both Anne Tyler and Tessa Hadley, among others, but a book that had a particular impact on me at a young age, and which is often in my thoughts, is Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood. I studied it for GCSE English. It was my first encounter with Atwood’s luminous prose, and it opened my mind to the wonderful imaginative possibilities contained within lives that, on the surface, could seem humdrum, even dull. I remember a particularly wonderful image about memory being not linear, but a deep and multi-layered thing, like a pool of water into which we can dive to retrieve the elements of our past. That has stayed with me ever since.

Thanks very much to Laura. The Versions of Us is out now, published by Orion. The clever marketing campaign is asking readers to share their ‘what if’ moment.. Tweet or Instagram your moment using the hashtag #what if.

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.