My reading habits have changed a lot over the past year (and a bit). When I started setting myself yearly reading goals last year, I was a frequent re-reader, but my second reread of the year was well into April. Both re-reads so far were books I hadn’t picked up in years, but this one was a very, very different experience to revisiting Silas Marner.
I first read this book in 2011/ 2012. My original copy disappeared somewhere – in the regular moving about of student life, or lent out to someone and adopted. It popped into my memory and, full of nostalgia, I got a new copy. I’d forgotten the detail – what I recalled was a tale of friendship, feel good and with lots of teacups featured. However, in the interim years between reads I have done an English Literature and Creative Writing degree, and generally spent large amounts of my time improving my critical and mechanical understanding of writing, as well as reading more and better books.
Unfortunately, I should have left this book to my happy but faded memory. Lesson learned. At a certain point I actually became frustrated enough with the writing to break out some post it notes and passive-aggressively record my thoughts, actually flicking back a few hundred pages to comment on things. I know. I’m not proud.
The novel follows three women who meet at a car boot sale and simultaneously fall for the same teaset. They have a chat and figure out a way that they can share – Jenny can have it for her wedding, Maggie can use them for a wedding she’s organising, and Alison can make them into candles. They’ll even help each other collect other cups as well. Happy days.
I love the concept of this book, and the characters are actually lovely women. Unfortunately, what I’d remembered in abstract was really let down by the writing, and by the lack of credible plot-drivers. They become friends, but go from meeting at a car boot to sharing very personal parts of their lives incredibly quickly, as far as I can tell.
The first post-it I made – the one I had to flick backwards to mark, because it had been jangling in my head ever since I read it – was the moment that, all of a sudden, lovely, sensible Maggie’s chapter became a Herbal Essences advert:
She washed in a zingy grapefruit shower gel that made her feel a whole lot more ready to face the world.
I found too much of Greene’s writing irrelevant detail, and was irritated by the constant in-depth reporting of what each woman was wearing at each given moment, down to sock colour and necklace length. I was wound up by characters making completely weird decisions and inventing conflict, seemingly so that the plot had something to chew on.
[spoilers this para]
A lot of this frustration was with Maggie – lovely, sparky, apparently-savvy Maggie. She meets up with her ex-husband, talking herself into it because at least she can ask him why he walked out after three years. But one look at his eyes and she forgets to bring it up, goes back into a relationship without clarifying her confusion over why it ended last time. Maggie, who we are told is great at business and makes smart decisions, and yet twice in this book looks at her assistant and decides, on the spot, to offer her an unspecified bonus/ pay rise. Just because. Excellent business planning, top marks.
I am more frustrated by all of this precisely because I wanted to adore this book so much – I wanted it to match up to my memory, and I wanted it to do justice to all of the elements which really are fantastic. I love Ruby and Derek, the couple who originally owned that teaset, and their part in the story. I loved the idea of these wonderful creative women finding each other and forging a friendship out of nowhere, so I was so disappointed to not fully believe in it. There’s a lot of brilliant material here – but unfortunately for me, Vanessa Greene just didn’t quite pull it off.