Published by Penguin
Publication date – 2 January 2020
Source – review copy as part of the CWIP Prize Shadow Panel.
Teenager Lizzie Vogel has a new job as a dental assistant. This is not as glamorous as it sounds. At least it means mostly getting away from her alcoholic, nymphomaniacal, novel-writing mother. But, if Lizzie thinks being independent means sex with her boyfriend (he prefers bird-watching), strict boundaries (her boss keeps using her loo) or self-respect (surely only actual athletes get fungal foot infections?) she’s still got a lot more growing up to do.
Lizzie Vogel is moving out. She has got a job as a dental nurse. Yes, the dentist is a racist who uses a sun lamp in the surgery and makes his assistant/girlfriend hold his cigarettes for him. Her boyfriend might not know he’s actually her boyfriend, and yes her mother is more wrapped up in her novel than her children (Lizzie does miss those mother-daughter shop-lifting trips), but she has her own flat and her own job. She is independent. She just has to learn how to be a grown up.
Lizzie has an endearing naivete about her. Her misunderstandings and interpretations of situations often left me with a wry smile on my face. She is on the cusp, still wanting her mother but knowing she has to leave the nest, not quite ready to live on her own but understanding she has to. She is rash in a controlled way, for unselfish reasons she carries out dental procedures she’s not supposed to do for example, but her actions are with the best intentions.
Whilst there are flashes of humour, there are also some bittersweet moments. Lizzie’s need for both of her parents is apparent to the reader, though perhaps not appreciated as much by her. She feels pushed out somewhat by her father’s new family. She still seeks her mother’s help and advice, is confused by her feelings when Andy moves in as a lodger. There are some lovely, touching scenes when her stepfather, Mr Holt, is more conscious than most of Lizzie’s moods and needs.
Whilst she may have inveigled herself into the role of dental nurse in a less than usual manner, the role allows Lizzie to grow. She becomes aware of how to treat people, and from her boss JP, how not to treat people because of their race. She sees that some divides are invisible and that it is ok to push back against them.
I’ll admit, there were points when the dentistry was discussed that made me squirm. Some of them reminded me that times have thankfully changed when it comes to teeth treatment. This was a time before PPE was even a thing, let alone something in short supply. JP, a dentist with appalling teeth, does his own treatment and only spruces up the surgery in the hope of being initiated into the Freemasons. Tammy, his enthusiastic jazzercise loving assistant/partner suddenly finds herself trying for a baby and Andy, the denture making boy from Lizzie’s village is Lizzie’s new boyfriend. She thinks.
I hadn’t read Man at the Helm and Paradise Lodge, the first books to feature Lizzie Vogel and her family. Whilst it didn’t spoil the enjoyment of the book I think reading the others would possibly have rounded out the experience.
Lizzie is an endearing character, and the reader wills her on, as she takes her first steps towards independence. It’s easy to imagine the setting, 1980, with the unqiue fashion and women’s liberation taking on momentum.
A nice, light read, a great way to spend a few summer evenings. I’ll look out for more from Nina Stibbe in the future.
About the Author
Nina Stibbe was born in Leicester. She is the author of two works of non-fiction – Love, Nina and An Almost Perfect Christmas – and three novels: Man at the Helm, Paradise Lodge, and Reasons to be Cheerful, which won the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize for Comic Fiction 2019. Love, Nina won Non-Fiction Book of the Year at the 2014 National Book Awards and in 2016 was adapted by Nick Hornby into a BBC series starring Faye Marsay and Helena Bonham-Carter. She lives in Cornwall.
This was book 14 in my 20 Books of Summer 2020 challenge.