Published by – W&N
Publication date – 9 July 2020
Source – review copy
1957, south-east suburbs of London.
Jean Swinney is a feature writer on a local paper, disappointed in love and – on the brink of forty – living a limited existence with her truculent mother: a small life from which there is no likelihood of escape.
When a young Swiss woman, Gretchen Tilbury, contacts the paper to claim that her daughter is the result of a virgin birth, it is down to Jean to discover whether she is a miracle or a fraud. But the more Jean investigates, the more her life becomes strangely (and not unpleasantly) intertwined with that of the Tilburys: Gretchen is now a friend, and her quirky and charming daughter Margaret a sort of surrogate child. And Jean doesn’t mean to fall in love with Gretchen’s husband, Howard, but Howard surprises her with his dry wit, his intelligence and his kindness – and when she does fall, she falls hard.
But he is married, and to her friend – who is also the subject of the story she is researching for the newspaper, a story that increasingly seems to be causing dark ripples across all their lives. And yet Jean cannot bring herself to discard the chance of finally having a taste of happiness.
But there will be a price to pay – and it will be unbearable.
Jean Swinney is a writer for a local newspaper. She spends her days writing household tips and her evenings looking after her housebound mother, who she rarely pleases. Her life, as she sees it, will go on until one or both of them die. And then she’s given a story to investigate. Swiss woman Gretchen Tibury has written to the paper claiming that her daughter, Margaret, was the result of a virgin birth. So Jean begins to investigate and as she does she discovers something missing from her own life – friendship. She becomes friends with Gretchen and her husband Howard, a surrogate aunt of Margaret. But then she falls for Howard and Jean is torn between her chance of happiness and her new found friendship.
There is something about this book that pulls the reader in. It grabs hold of you and makes you want to wallow in it until the end. It is both comforting and uncomfortable. Jean is not happy, though she doesn’t really acknowledge that until she meets the Tilburys.
The mystery behind Margaret’s conception is only one of the threads of narrative but it is the one which is the catalyst for so many of the changes to Jean’s life. With it comes a heavy burden. Jean has befriended the Tilburys, has become protective of them and doesn’t want to see their lives splashed about on the front page. Yet she has a job to do and so she investigates, looking back to the time of Margaret’s conception, uncovering the truth, about Gretchen, and herself, in the process.
Set in the 1957, when the country was still dazed from the war, the reader is transported back in time. It’s easy to imagine the shiny steps, scrubbed by Jean as her mother looks on, visitors with wicker baskets carrying jam, lambs hearts for dinner, coal fires and antimacassars, rooms saved only for best. Steam trains and diesel trains colliding together, literally and metaphorically showing a time on the cusp of the old and the new.
Jean, nearly forty, is resigned to her fate as a spinster, a rountine of work and home, with nothing in between. Her colleagues have stopped asking her to join them at the pub. Having to go home to her mother curtails any freedoms she may have. The pair go on holiday and seeing a woman with her aged mother, Jean sees her own future laid out. The Tilburys offer a lifeline, a way out from her pre-destined future and Jean eagerly grabs hold.
There is a warmth that suffuses this novel. It is there in the new dress Gretchen makes for Jean, in the food Jean prepares for her mother, in the gift that Margaret receives from Jean and in the gentle way Howard and Jean fall in love. The warmth is there despite the reader anticipating things aren’t going to go to plan, that someone is going to be hurt.
There are small pleasures on each page. The small pleasures that run through life, often going unnoticed because they aren’t big or brash or announced to the world. The pleasure of discovering a new food as Jean tries Gretchen’s baking for example or eating cakes with Margaret in a London cafe. Jean realises that those small pleasures have been around her, as she begins to enjoy life more, she begins to enjoy those little, everyday things more too.
It is always hard to review a novel without giving too much of the plot away. It is even harder when the plot is so intrinsic to the characters and the feel of the novel. So I will just say, pick up the book, be tempted by those bright fruits, read the first few pages and you’ll understand the feel of the story straight away. It is comforting and intriguing, a perfect combination.
Inspired by a real life story of a woman who claimed her daughter was the result of an immaculate conception, Small Pleasures is not a sensationalist novel. It is a kind, compassionate, bittersweet tale of love, friendship and acceptance. The ending, when it comes, will be one that divides readers. It is though, perhaps, the one we deserve.
An all-encompassing book, one you will want to hide away with and immerse yourself in.
About the author
Clare Chamber’s first job after reading English Literature at Hertford College, Oxford, was working for Diana Athill at Andre Deutsch. Clare’s first novel UNCERTAIN TERMS was published by Diana at André Deutsch in 1992 and she is the author of five other novels. SMALL PLEASURES is her first work of fiction in ten years.
This was book 9 in my 20 Books of Summer 2020 challenge.