Date read: 15th January 2014
Publisher: Harper Perennial
Release Date: 1st October 2002
Length: 380 pages
Source: Purchased from Waterstones
In the tradition of “Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, ” this moving novel, filled with warmth, wit, and wisdom, is about a group of women who discover–over the course of 40 turbulent years–the nature of true friendship.
Periodically (though not as often as I’d like), I go to a bigger library than the tiny one near my old workplace. My favourite local library is in Taunton, a town I lived in for two years and is now 25 miles away from my home. I manage to combine a visit to my two best friends who still live there with an hour or two wandering the shelves and usually picking up books I didn’t intend on reading.
This semi-tradition is how the above book crossed my path. I’ve read a couple of books by Laurie Graham before – I think I read The Unfortunates a very very long time ago, and I read Gone With The Windsors last year as part of another library book binge. The description on the back cover – incidentally, a lot more descriptive than the Goodreads description – made it sound right up my alley, and although I put a few other library books higher on my to-read list, I settled on it over the weekend just gone.
The story focuses on five women who are all married to members of the US Air Force stationed at the same base in Norfolk. They cross the path of one Kath Pharaoh, a local woman who lives in very different circumstances to their relative splendour, and mainly through the efforts of the narrator Peggy, stay in touch through the next forty or so years, although it’s made clear pretty early on that the six of them never reunite at the same time.
The story itself is interesting – Peggy goes from a housewife to the owner of a wedding-planning company (although not without some bumps along the way), the slightly dippy character Betty becomes a high-flying saleswoman of weight-loss products, all the while giving her grandchildren the majority of her attention, poor Gayle lurches from calamity to calamity before finding some sort of peace, Audrey ends up back in England after her husband dies in unfortunate circumstances, and Lois’s indiscretions in England haunt her (although she doesn’t realise to what extent until the very end of the book). Each character is well-written, and the first person narrative means that we see a very particular view of them through Peggy’s well-meaning yet sometimes ascerbic eyes. Even the peripheral characters are believable which is impressive given the relative lack of time we get to spend with them before the focus switches to someone else.
The fact that the book covers an awful lot of time, added to the relatively short length, means that quite a lot is skimmed over – Peggy’s daughter seems to age awfully quickly, but thinking about it now the speeding up of time probably reflects the way that all of us know that time goes quicker as you get older – remember how long the six weeks summer holiday seemed when we were in primary school, compared to six weeks now? And I found myself getting more drawn in once the action had left the UK and the six women were spread across the two continents.
Men aren’t treated particularly well in this book – the only decent men end up cuckolded, widowed or dead, so far as I can see, apart from Peggy’s employee Grice who has a gentleman friend called Tucker (whose mother has a perfect recipe for tomato sandwiches and calls Peggy gauche). He is in Peggy’s life throughout the latter half of the book and is a good friend to her, despite Peggy’s either wilful or naïve blindness as to his relationship with Tucker.
I enjoyed reading this book but I would have to say the characters haven’t really stayed with me, which is the mark of a good read so far as I’m concerned… I would however read more books by Laurie Graham as she chooses the most interesting premises for her books (the best friend of Wallis Simpson!!) but I would probably borrow them from the library as I would only want to read them once.