Author, Book review, Fiction, Fourth Estate, literary fiction, New York, Publisher, Setting, Virginia Feito

‘Mrs March’ by Virginia Feito

Fiction – paperback; Fourth Estate; 304 pages; 2021.

I have been reading some quite serious and heavy books recently (some of which are yet to be reviewed), so how delightful it was to pick up Virginia Feito’s Mrs March for some wickedly good fun!

Set in New York’s exclusive Upper East Side, this debut novel tells the story of the titular Mrs March, who is married to celebrated author George March, a man 11 years her senior, to whom she is devoted, mainly because of the status and wealth his success brings. (They’ve been married a long time and it’s fair to say her love for him has waned somewhat.)

So imagine her horror when one day, out buying her regulation olive bread from the local patisserie shop, she discovers that readers believe that Johanna, the lead character in George’s latest bestselling book, is based on her. She’s outraged because Johanna is a whore past her prime, and Mrs March is a fine upstanding citizen, albeit slightly fake and needy, who believes that appearances are everything.

Distraught by this news, she comes home and pulls George’s book from the shelf. In the acknowledgements she notices that she has been thanked as “a constant source of inspiration”:

Mrs March clutched her breast, breathing hard, faintly aware that tears were falling amidst convulsive gasps. Then she shook the book, smashed it against the desk, opened it to the author photograph on the jacket flap, clawed out George’s eyes, scratched out the threaded spine, and pulled out fistfuls of pages—which flew around the room like feathers.

Losing her grip on reality

From this moment on, Mrs March’s behaviour becomes increasingly more bizarre and deranged. Having snooped in George’s study for more evidence, she discovers a newspaper clipping of a young woman who has gone missing and she somehow gets it into her head that her husband has murdered her. What follows is a slippery slope of mental anguish and upset, morphing into paranoia and a conviction that her husband is guilty.

Mrs March’s behaviour becomes farcical. But there’s nothing she won’t stoop to — including impersonating an investigative journalist from the New York Times — in a bid to get to the truth.

Of course, a story like this can’t help but be wildly funny. I tittered a lot through this novel. The abhorrent behaviour of Mrs March, her undisguised but unconscious snobbery, made me laugh. Take this simple example:

As the party progressed, the living room fattening with each new arrival, Mrs March tasked Martha with attending to the guest bathroom regularly, to fold the towels and freshen the toilet seat and floor with a light ammonia solution. The sharp antiseptic vapors merged with the sticky, sappy scent of pine, creating a smell so distinct that guests would, on future visits to hospitals or upon passing a storekeeper emptying a bucket of mop water onto the street, instantly recall that last party at the Marches.

Or this little snide remark about the noise of clacking high heels in the apartment directly above:

She didn’t know who owned the apartment right above theirs, but every time she saw a woman in heels in the lobby she would consider approaching her, maybe befriending her so that one day she could mention, in a casual, offhand manner, the surprising benefits of house slippers.

As you can tell from these quotes, the story is written in the third person, but very much from Mrs March’s point of view. We really have no idea what goes on in the head of her husband, nor her young son, Jonathan, with whom she has a rather detached relationship.

A black comedy of manners

This is a book about manners, a black comedy, if you will, with a dark twist, and it’s written with a big nod to Patricia Highsmith and perhaps even Michael Dibden.

I really loved following Mrs March’s increasingly outrageous antics, but I also worried for her sanity — and wanted to let her know that maybe she should just take a chill pill! It’s unsettling and disturbing, hugely suspenseful and a terrific page-turner. Most of all, it is simply great fun.

A movie adaptation, starring Elisabeth Moss, has been slated. I suspect it will be a hoot!

For other takes on this novel, please see:

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2020), Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Picador, Publisher, satire, Setting, UK

‘Diary of a Somebody’ by Brian Bilston

Fiction – Kindle edition; Picador; 384 pages; 2019. 

If you like wordplay, puns and funny poetry, put Brian Bilston’s Diary of a Somebody on your wishlist. I laughed all the way through it; the perfect antidote to the strange and anxious times we are living through.

The story follows (the fictional) Brian Bilston’s resolution to write a poem every day for an entire year, a way of distracting himself from the pain of a broken marriage, an unsatisfactory relationship with his teenage son and an office job at which he’s failing.

His poems are dotted throughout the narrative, and each one is laugh-out-loud funny.

you are so groovet,
I’d like to stay under you
all of Tuesdet.


Poetry Club
The first rule of Poetry Club
is that we meet each month in the pub.
The second rule of Poetry Club
is that not all poems have to rhyme.

But it’s the constant wordplay that gave me the best giggles. This is a good example of what to expect:

How to Avoid Mixing Your Metaphors It’s not rocket surgery. First, get all your ducks on the same page. After all, you can’t make an omelette without breaking stride. Be sure to watch what you write with a fine-tuned comb. Check and re-check until the cows turn blue. It’s as easy as falling off a piece of cake. Don’t worry about opening up a whole hill of beans: you can always burn that bridge when you come to it, if you follow where I’m coming from. Concentrate! Keep your door closed and your enemies closer. Finally, don’t take the moral high horse: if the metaphor fits, walk a mile in it.

Along with witty one-liners:

She put the phone down on me and I was left alone with the silence. It was a mute point.

Dear Diary

Written in diary format, it charts 45-year-old Brian’s attempt to make sense of his falling-apart world. He’s slightly self-absorbed, lacks self-awareness and is obsessed with custard creams.

There are times when there is simply no substitute for a custard cream. These times are typically from 7am to 10pm, at the following intervals: 00, 15, 30, 45. There is something about their vanilla-custard filling and the baroque carving of the outer sandwich layers which lends itself to the practice of contemplation and study.

His working life is full of management jargon and missed deadlines. And his home life isn’t much better. He doesn’t seem able to commit to anything. He can’t even finish a book despite starting a new one every month for his book club:

 In other news, I began to read Wuthering Heights this evening. I’m on page 12 already. It’s rather moorish.

He attends a regular poetry club but each meeting is somewhat disastrous as he tries to compete with the dastardly Toby Salt, who is a much better poet, attracts the ladies (including someone Brian has his eye on) and has a loyal and ever-increasing Twitter following.

I noted that on Twitter, I have now optimised myself for twenty-three people. Toby Salt has somehow managed 174 followers. I clearly need to deepen my digital footprint and I have made a vow, with the cat as my witness, to share more of my poems with my foolhardy followers as a next tentative digital baby step.

But when Toby mysteriously disappears not long after his first book is published, Brian unwittingly attracts the attention of the police: did he bump off his rival in a pique of jealous rage? The fun of this book is reading it to find out!

Original and inventive

There’s no doubting that Diary of a Somebody is wholly original and inventive. It’s a wonderful blend of satire and black comedy.

The jokes and the constant refrains — helping his neighbour remember when it is bin day, putting up with self-help mumbo-jumbo from his ex-wife’s new man, never finishing a novel, eating too many custard creams and so on — do begin to wear thin after a while.

Perhaps 12 months in the life of Brian Bilston is a bit too much and six months could have been chopped from his diary, but on the whole, this is an enjoyable novel about a man who doesn’t quite realise how funny (if somewhat pathetic) he really is! More, please.

This is my 9th book for #20BooksofSummer / #20BooksOfSouthernHemisphereWinter. I picked up a proof copy of this in early 2019 when I went to a Picador Showcase in London and the author did a reading, which had me in minor hysterics. Unfortunately, I didn’t bring my copy with me when I moved back to Australia but when I saw it on Kindle for 99p earlier this year I couldn’t resist buying it.

Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, New York, Nora Ephron, Publisher, Setting, USA, Virago

‘Heartburn’ by Nora Ephron


Fiction – paperback; Virago; 192 pages; 2018.

First published in 1983, Nora Ephron’s Heartburn is a black comedy about the break up of a marriage between a high-flying journalist and a celebrity food writer.

Recently republished as part of Virago’s Modern Classic 40th anniversary series, it was Ephron’s only novel (albeit a thinly disguised memoir about her own marriage break up with investigative journalist Carl Bernstein). She’s probably better known as the screenwriter of the Hollywood films When Harry Met Sally (1989) and Sleepless in Seattle (1993), among others.

I came to Heartburn via my book group when it was chosen as our November read. It’s a brilliant comic read that transforms a personal tragedy into a laugh-out-loud farce. Honestly, don’t read it on your commute unless you like guffawing in public, it really is that funny.

But it’s tinged with sadness and a smidgen of desperation, too, and there are brief moments of poignancy that give the tale a very human touch.

Affair of the heart

The story is told in the first person through the eyes of Rachel, a cookery writer, looking back on the time in her life when, seven months pregnant with her second child, she discovered that her husband was having an affair.

She knows Thelma, the other woman, whom she takes great delight in describing as “a fairly tall person with a neck as long as an arm and a nose as long as a thumb and you should see her legs, never mind her feet, which are kind of splayed”.

When her husband comes home and confesses that he’s in love with Thelma but denies they are having an affair, he expects Rachel to stick by him in Washington, where they live. But Rachel has other ideas. She flees to Manhattan to spend some time with her father, a cantankerous man with his own sordid track record of adultery, and from there she licks her wounds and works on her plan to win her husband back.

Intimate, self-deprecating confession

The book is written as a deliciously intimate confession, one that swings between revenge and heartbreak, shame and all-consuming anger, and gives us a glimpse into Rachel’s innermost thoughts, not all of them pretty.

“If I tell the story,” she says, “I can make you laugh, and I would rather have you laugh at me than feel sorry for me.”

It’s full of terrific one-liners and great put downs and is littered with non-PC opinions and much self-deprecating humour.

And because the way to a man’s heart, they say, is through food, it also features many recipes — for things such as vinaigrette, creme brûlée, key lime pie and sorrel soup — all of which play an important part in Rachel’s marriage and career.  (There’s even a helpful index at the back of the book should you wish to make the recipes yourself.)

It’s peopled with a cast of rather obnoxious, self-obsessed characters — everyone’s wealthy and successful and sleeping with people to whom they’re not married — the kinds of people who don’t take responsibilities for their actions and seek to blame others.

If you think this sounds like good material for a film, you’d be right: it was adapted in 1986 (Ephron wrote the screenplay) and stars Meryl Streep and Jack Nicholson. I haven’t seen it, but if it’s half as good as the book it will be very good indeed.

Author, Book review, England, Fiction, literary fiction, Louise Dean, Penguin, Publisher, Setting

‘The Old Romantic’ by Louise Dean


Fiction – paperback; Penguin; 292 pages; 2011.

Louise Dean’s The Old Romantic couldn’t be more different — in tone, subject and style — than the last novel of hers that I read, the brilliant but oh-so bleak This Human Season (2006), which was set in Belfast, Northern Ireland, at the height of The Troubles and explored the political divide.

The Old Romantic is right at the other end of the spectrum: it’s a warm-hearted comedy set in on the south-east coast of England and is one of those lovely novels that you eat up in a day or two and feel all the better for having done so.

Grumpy old man

The story is essentially about the ups and downs, trials and tribulations of one family headed by the cantankerous Ken Goodyew — the “old romantic” of the title — who has become slightly obsessed by his own death. Ken is retired and lives in Hastings, a rundown coastal town in East Sussex, with his second wife, June.

When the book opens he has just been reunited with his eldest son, Nick, a solicitor, for the first time in 15 years at a hastily convened lunch with the extended family. You know things are not going to bode well for the newly established relationship when Ken announces that he has decided to leave all his worldly goods to his younger son, Dave — and that he wants Nick to draw up the will.

His marriage to June also looks to be on the rocks when he announces — just a few minutes later — that he also wants Nick to sort out a divorce. “I don’t want her lot, June’s family, to get their hands on a penny of it, see?” he says, while June sits there and does her best to ignore him.

Working class hero

From this fateful lunch, Dean spins a simple tale about Ken and the ways in which his actions, both past and present, impinge on his two wives and his two children. He is wilfully ignorant, marvellously grumpy and blatantly proud of his working class roots. I loved that all his dialogue is written phonetically, so he sounds like a London cab driver, and that almost everything that comes out of his mouth is appallingly rude or appallingly funny.

But even though Ken is the central character around which everything else tends to revolve, the book devotes equal attention to Nick and the ways in which he has spent his entire life trying to escape his humble beginnings — and his father’s overbearing shadow. That he changed his name from Gary, that he decided to study law, that he goes on holiday to exotic locations abroad, all speak of his desire to reinvent himself as a middle-class “somebody”.

His relationship with younger brother Dave — his polar opposite — is beautifully fleshed out, too, and you get a real sense of their sibling rivalries, tensions, contradictions — and love.

Other standout characters include Astrid, Nick’s beauty-parlour girlfriend obsessed with her looks and staying young, and Audrey, the business-like 40-something undertaker, whom Ken falls in love with — until she shows him the delicate and specialised art of embalming.

Comedy of manners

The Old Romantic is a wonderfully witty read that showcases Dean’s ability to write funny set pieces. But she’s also very good at developing drama, constructing believable dialogue and fleshing out back stories without losing that all-important narrative tension that keeps the reader turning the pages. The plot might be lean, but it’s the characters and the exploration of life, death and family which makes it rather special.

I loved this book and laughed out loud quite a lot, although I must admit that part of the enjoyment came from knowing that much of it was set in areas with which I am familiar. Indeed, I read this while on holiday in East Sussex, just a stone’s throw from Rye where much of the action takes place.

But even if you don’t know these places, there is much to enjoy in this rather fine comedy of manners.

Author, Book review, crime/thriller, England, Faber and Faber, Fiction, Michael Dibdin, Publisher, Setting

‘Dirty Tricks’ by Michael Dibdin


Fiction – paperback; Faber and Faber; 256 pages; 1999.

I do like a nasty narrator in a novel and the unnamed narrator in Michael Dibden’s Dirty Tricks is right up there with the nastiest. He is also one of the most unreliable you will come across in modern fiction.

‘Truthful’ testimony

When the book opens, the narrator addresses us as if we are in a foreign court about to determine his fate. He tells us that he is going to tell us “the complete and absolute truth”. We know that he is living in exile, possibly somewhere in South America, and that the British Government, which describes him as a “sordid sex murderer”, has issued an extradition request for him to return to the UK. He admits that his “story is riddled with deceptions, evasions, slanders and falsifications of every kind” but that he is “innocent of the murders” detailed in the request.

But what we don’t know is how many people he (allegedly) murdered and in what circumstances. In fact, we know very little about the crimes, other than it all began at a dinner party.

That’s where the social action is in my country, among people of my class. Half the English feed fast and early and then go down the pub to drink beer, the other half eat a slow meal late and drink wine, before, during and after. (I am anxious that you should understand the customs and manners of the country where the events in question took place, so different from your own. Otherwise it may be difficult to appreciate how very natural it is that things should have turned out as they did.) When I say dinner parties, I mean drinking parties with a cooked meal thrown in.

You will gather by that quote that our narrator has a sense of humour and he’s never more at home than when he is able to poke fun at the English middle-classes to which he so desperately wants to belong. That’s because he’s not really made much of his life — despite being brought up in the Home Counties by respectable, hard-working parents. He is 40,  still living in shared student accommodation in the “East Oxford slums” and gets about town on a “tenth-hand push-bike”. He doesn’t have many friends and he certainly doesn’t have a regular girlfriend. He gets by teaching English to foreign students at a school run by a man he hates.

Entangled with a middle-class couple

But when he meets the Parsons — Karen, a physical education teacher from Liverpool, and her husband Dennis, a successful accountant cum wine snob — a whole new world opens up to him, one in which people live in large detached houses, drive Volvos and Audis, have successful careers and pensions.

It is at the aforementioned dinner party that his entanglement with the Parsons begins: during the meal he believes Karen is playing footsies with him under the table. This leads to all kinds of shenanigans — and he begins a rather sordid affair with Karen that is detailed in quite an explicit way (if you don’t like dirty sex scenes, this is definitely not the book for you).

Once our narrator has inveigled his way into Karen’s life, events get increasingly more outrageous — and hilarious — and if I said any more it would ruin the enjoyment for other readers.

No moral compass

The best thing about reading Dirty Tricks is being taken on a ride — in all senses of the word — by a narrator, who not only lacks a moral compass, he doesn’t even seem to know which way is up. Initially, it’s easy to pity him — a poor man who life and luck has overlooked — but then as the narrative unfurls you begin to get a better sense of his strange, skewed outlook on life. Our narrator not only has an inflated sense of his own importance, he is so lacking in empathy for anyone around him that he can only be described as a psychopath.

But while the underbelly of the book is very dark, it made me laugh out loud more than anything I’ve read since Jon Canter’s A Short Gentleman. The further you get into the book, the more shocking our narrator’s behaviour becomes. He manipulates people for his own end, but never seems to see the error of his ways. It is always someone else’s fault. The humour mainly works because of the way in which he justifies his actions — and maintains his angelic innocence!

Thanks to se71 for alerting me to Dirty Tricks when I wrote about novels starring amoral protagonists earlier in the year. This delicious and very wicked black comedy — first published in 1991 — was perfectly in tune with my dry sense of humour.

Author, Book review, chick-lit, Fiction, general, Harper Collins, Lauren Weisberger, New York, Publisher, Setting

‘The Devil Wears Prada’ by Lauren Weisberger


Fiction – paperback; Harper Collins; 400 pages; 2003.

If you have ever worked for an unreasonable boss or taken a job where you have had to compromise your values, then this book is likely to appeal.

I don’t normally “do” chick-lit but I raced through The Devil Wears Prada if only because the plight of the narrator — Andrea Sachs, who takes a job as an editorial assistant on a fashion magazine — resonated so strongly with me, because, I, too, have worked on a successful magazine, albeit not one quite as glamorous as the title portrayed here.

In this book Andrea, a recent college graduate, dreams of writing for the New Yorker. But she knows that hitting such heights requires some legwork and experience, so when she lands the job “that millions would die for” on a glossy fashion magazine in Manhattan she’s prepared to put in the hard graft. What she isn’t quite prepared for is that her boss, Miranda Priestly, is a high-flying control-freak, a kind of cross between Cruella De Vil and Hitler, that sets out to make her job — and her life — hell.

Along the way Andrea must accomplish all kinds of near-impossible tasks to perfection (or risk being fired) while juggling relationships with a long-term boyfriend, Alex, and her best friend, Lily, both of whom she begins to neglect — with dire consequences — as her working life takes its toll. Throw in a smattering of light romance and a lot of humour, some travel tales and an overload of sordid insights into the dual worlds of fashion and magazine publishing, and you can’t really go wrong.

As a debut novel, The Devil Wears Prada is a remarkably accomplished tale that treads a fine balance between all-out farce and Ugly Betty-type soap opera. That everything rings true says a lot for the author’s story-telling abilities. I particularly liked Andrea’s voice, which is sharp, sassy and intelligent — if not terribly wise.

While the plot is not particularly strong — it’s simply a year in the life of the narrator — and is riddled with holes, Weisberger knows how to keep the reader on the edge of her seat. For instance, Andrea does not actually meet her boss from hell until about a third of the way through the book, which builds up the tension to almost palpable proportions.

The narrator’s sense of moral outrage also helps propel the story along. As a reader you long to know if she will ever dish out as good as she gets… but if I told you, that would spoil things, wouldn’t it?

The Devil Wears Prada is a light, fun and entertaining read, perfect if you want to check your brain into neutral or stay in your pyjamas all day.