Divorce courts little interest
RAFFAELLA Barker is adamant her work does not fall into the category of chick lit. Perhaps she’s right. Chick lit generally follows the travails of young women searching for a partner. This example of light fiction examines the other end of a particular romantic trajectory — the end of a marriage — so it might more accurately be described as divorcee lit.
The novel charts the marriage breakdown of Angel and Nick, parents of four lively children, who live in a large country house in Norfolk.
The label divorcee lit immediately exposes one of the problems with the novel: the clash between the dark and serious emotions of divorce and the job of light fiction, which is to entertain. Awkward lurches in tone between comedy and distress are inevitable.
Another requirement of the light fiction genre is that its characters be flawed but sympathetic. Sharing your holiday with irritating people is no fun, even if they only inhabit your reading material. Unfortunately, time spent with Angel and Nick will not have you smiling into your daiquiri. Angel stresses herself trying to meet ridiculously high standards of motherhood and housekeeping, allows her children to treat her with staggering rudeness, and manages to lose one of them while asleep on a picnic. Having recovered from alcoholism, Nick busies himself having sex with as many other women as he can. Real- estate agents, family friends: none is safe from his advances.
The two youngest children, Ruby and Foss, are clearly meant to be, as their mother keeps exclaiming, ‘‘ adorable’’, but it’s like listening to a parental recitation of the cute things their child has said or done: rarely as interesting as mama believes. Coral is a somewhat stereotypical prickly teenager, spending the summer before university drinking and smoking, running off with her boyfriend and raging at her mother. She’s angry because Angel and Nick haven’t mentioned to the other children the small matter of Nick not being her father.
Teenager Jem is one of the few likable characters; the novel is ameliorated by the sections told from his point of view, which express his understandable frustration with his noisy home life and childish parents.
Chick lit often allows readers to immerse themselves in another, more glamorous- seeming life, say that of a sassy magazine editor or a successful fashion stylist. The reader can experience the glamour vicariously while feeling a little schadenfreude in the fact that neither money nor success can buy you love.
The ironic title of this novel alludes to exactly this readerly transaction. Barker’s other successful novels demonstrate that there is a readership that enjoys a certain English upper- middle- class milieu, with its easy wealth, precocious children and picturesque domestic chaos. But there will be many who do not find the scene congenial.
Barker’s talent lies in capturing the rhythms of spoken English, particularly the idiosyncrasies of the various ages of childhood and youth. But the prose is often overblown and there is not much in the way of plot to keep us going.
It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the recently divorced Barker, mother of several children and resident of Norfolk, has channelled into this novel the stream of consciousness she might otherwise have unburdened on to a counsellor. Chick lit might have a therapeutic value for the reader, but with divorcee lit perhaps the magic only works for the writer. Bronwyn Rivers is the author of Women at Work in the Victorian Novel.