My friend and I have decided to run a mini book club. She and I, both English teachers and English graduates, read a book at the same time, then discuss our thoughts afterwards. It’s a lovely distraction from social media. Our first read was Small Pleasures by Clare Chambers. I grabbed it randomly off a recommendations shelf in Waterstones, saw that it was Longlisted, and was told that it was a great read by the girl who served me. Of course, I had high expectations.
Jean Swinney is a reporter in the mid-1950s, and is tasked with investigating the claims of wife and mother Gretchen Tilbury. Mrs Tilbury believes her daughter Margaret is the product of an immaculate conception, having fallen pregnant while being treated for arthritis in hospital at 18 years old. Supporting her is her husband, Howard, a kind and respectful man… the perfect man, in the eyes of Jean.
As the investigation progresses, Jean finds herself falling for Howard, complicating matters, until Gretchen makes a life changing decision. While battling her feelings for Howard, Jean finally uncovers the mystery behind the conception, but questions whether she should publish her findings.
I’d like to start by saying that I did enjoy Small Pleasures by Clare Chambers. This review is going to seem negative, and give away some aspects of the plot, but it was a well written, easy read that I didn’t want to put down. The first half of the novel is focused on the investigation, which I found the most interesting, but then the latter half focuses on Jean’s relationship with Howard and Gretchen Tilbury, and it’s a little less enjoyable to read.
There are aspects of the plot which are a little cliched. Jean’s character is the typical ‘Spinster’ trope – she’s 39, isolates herself, has to look after an insane mother who she rarely stands up to, and lost a child of her own in the past. The mystery of the immaculate conception is exactly what you think it’s going to be. There is also the equivalent of Romeo and Juliet’s prologue in the article detailing the train crash – you go the whole book knowing someone will die in the crash, then realise who it will be midway through the penultimate chapter, only to be confirmed in the final one. It’s a little disappointing.
However, I really enjoyed the epistolary snippets throughout the text. Chambers gives us a little extra insight into Jean’s day to day life and thoughts, writing for the newspaper. The snippets have vague references to events that have just happened in the text, or they allude to something that will happen later. It also breaks up the structure of the text a little.
The title ‘Small Pleasures‘ refers to Jean’s enjoyment of the little things. Initially, it’s material objects kept in a drawer at home, but she soon realises that her real pleasures are a few hours with Margaret, a lift home from Howard, a cigarette on a stressful day. We might think of the small things that we enjoy too – a smile from our children, or a good coffee. The book itself is a small pleasure. It’s easily read, quickly finished. The only shame is that the plot was so straightforward, as Chambers’ use of language and structural features are really strong.
Who would enjoy this book?
Anyone who enjoys a domestic tragedy.
Overall, it’s an enjoyable book, but not the best I’ve ever read. Perhaps I expected a little too much of it.
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