This was my January pick for my 2019 Facebook Reading Challenge, the theme for this month being a humorous novel. I hadn’t read any Bainbridge before and had read that this was considered a comic masterpiece and was in fact shortlisted the Booker Prize in 1974 when it was first published (Bainbridge had no less than four novels shortlisted). This book also won the Guardian Fiction Prize.
So, the book has a pedigree and I had high expectations. I enjoyed it, but I’m afraid to say that I didn’t enjoy it as much as I expected. Perhaps it’s partly timing; I posted a review last week of The Overstory, a book which I found breathtakingly good, and which I completed just before starting this one and I fear that it suffered somewhat in comparison. Perhaps I wasn’t ready for humour after that! I seem to remember having similar feelings about the books I read immediately after completing Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life a couple of years ago. There are some books which just need a little more time to sit with you before you launch into something else.
In summary, this book is set in the late ‘60s, early 70s and is about Freda and Brenda, two young women who work together in a London factory where Italian wine is bottled. They also live together in a pokey bedsit, and share a double bed at nights. Freda is blonde, buxom and outgoing, sexually frustrated and of a romantic inclination. She has the hots for Vittorio, the nephew of the factory’s Italian owner, and fantasises about being seduced by him, contriving situations to enable this. Brenda is a redhead, but mousey in personality, timid and sexually repressed. She has left her drunken husband Stanley in the Yorkshire farmhouse which they shared with his domineering mother. Freda and Brenda met after Brenda had a tearful outburst in a butcher’s shop. Freda took her in and got her a job at the factory. Freda can be kind but also cruel and the book is as much about the complex nature of relationships between women as anything else.
Almost all the other factory workers are Italian, expect Patrick, an Irishman who seems to be quite protective towards Brenda. The first quarter or so of the book is spent setting the scene before the ‘outing’ takes place. The outing, which was supposed to be by coach to a stately home, was Freda’s idea and was simply one of her plots to try and get Vittorio to declare his passion for her. Inevitably, things start to go wrong when the expected coach does not arrive and some workers have to go home while others pile into cars, and the outing turns into farce. It is a cold and bleak October day, so Freda’s fantasy of a sunlit picnic and strolling through romantic gardens with her hoped-for lover were never going to be realised. The other side-plot is that Brenda is being relentlessly pursued by the (older and married) Rossi, manager of the factory. At work he is always trying to get her into compromising situations.
The outing occupies most of the rest of the book. Inevitably, not all goes to plan and there is a dramatic and unexpected twist, which I won’t spoil by sharing with you. There is definitely humour, but it is very dark. By coincidence, there was a BBC radio broadcast of the story (abridged of course) in mid-January, where the wonderful Maxine Peake and Diane Morgan took the parts of Freda and Brenda, respectively, and Sue Johnstone (masterful) narrates. They drew out both the humour and the tenderness very effectively. In fact I enjoyed the broadcast slightly more than the book! I think this was because the ironic interpretation came across more strongly (the process of abridging perhaps?) and that felt more satisfying for a 21st century reading. Clearly we still have quite a way to go when it comes to gender equality, but you forget how bad things were only 40-50 years ago. In the context of the #MeToo movement, sexual harassment of women in the workplace is more difficult to find funny. Perhaps I am being far too earnest!
I enjoyed the book, but must confess that reading it did at times make me a bit uncomfortable. Which is a shame because I think it is a far more complex novel than a first (post-Overstory) reading allows. I think I need to read it again!
Hmm, what do you think?
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