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Wednesday, August 18, 2010

A SENSIBLE LIFE by Mary Wesley

I’ve said it before and I’ll probably say it again: I get really cross when authors rely on coincidence to bring their plots together.

And it’s amazing how many serious literary names do it.

Edith Wharton has ridiculous chance meetings in The House of Mirth and I remember being incredulous that Jay McInerney – a writer I love – used coincidences so lazily in The Good Life.

I have put one chance meeting in my new novel, but only after a lot of agonised consideration. In the end I left it in as it is the kind of coincidence that we have all experienced – bumping into a friend unexpectedly – and it is absolutely not germane to the plot. It’s just an amusing incident that allows greater insight into one particular character.

So it was very disappointing that this novel – which starts really marvellously – relies on no fewer than three ridiculous chance meetings, one of them hilariously unlikely, and a far-fetched coincidence of place, to bring it to a ludicrous close.

I can’t understand why the author’s editor allowed her to do it to herself. Mary Wesley is better than that.

I remember so clearly when she burst onto the scene in the early 1980s. An instant literary sensation, publishing her first book at the age of 71, she was an inspiration to everyone who dreamed they might write a novel one day. Which included me at that stage.

I loved Jumping the Queue and The Camomile Lawn, so when I stumbled on this one in my mother’s study, in search of something to read, I was delighted to be dipping back into Wesley again.

I really loved the first three quarters of it, particularly the opening section, which is set in Normandy in the 1920s, where a lot of English families are gathered on holiday.

It’s a really vivid evocation of the period, combined with the universal experiences of adolescent angst and first love. There are also some wonderfully believable hateable characters, particularly the narcissistic parents of the little girl who is the main focus of the book.

Their blithe way of making sure that having a daughter impacts as little as possible on their own self-indulgent lifestyle rang true with many modern parents I have observed.

So I recommend the book for this early section alone, but with a warning that it has one of the most laughable endings I have ever read in a novel. The scores below reflect this. Had it ended properly it would have had the first number.

Reading satisfaction: 8/3
Un-put-downable-ness: 7/5
Recommend to best girlfriend: 9/5
Recommend to mother: 9/8
Recommend to niece: 7/4
Recommend to gay best friend: 5/3
Recommend to man pal: 0/0
Recommend to Helen Razer: 0/0
Read on public transport: 4/4
Unpleasantness: 0


  1. Without going to check, I suspect this is the Flora/Cosmo/reunited after 40 years?

    I love mary Wesley's ability to "bring me home" to the edge of middle cass England, but the pisspotical nature of these coicidences irked me, too.

  2. Hi Lucy
    You are bang on, but before that Flora bumps into the other two men completely by chance in the street in London. Then her employers buy a farm very close to Blanco's house. Then Cosmo is driving to Blanco's one evening, follows random people completely randomly to a ramdom barbecue and there is Flora! It was nuts. But the beginning of the book is a joy exactly as you describe it. Maggie x

  3. If you hate ridiculous coincidences which are crucial to plots, definitely don't read The Glass Room by Simon Mawer.

  4. Thanks for the tip, Katy! It is annoying, isn't it?