#BookReview Small Pleasures by Clare Chambers

Small PleasuresAbout the Book

1957, south-east suburbs of London. Jean Swinney is a feature writer on a local paper, disappointed in love and – on the brink of forty – living a limited existence with her truculent mother: a small life from which there is no likelihood of escape.

When a young Swiss woman, Gretchen Tilbury, contacts the paper to claim that her daughter is the result of a virgin birth, it is down to Jean to discover whether she is a miracle or a fraud. But the more Jean investigates, the more her life becomes strangely (and not unpleasantly) intertwined with that of the Tilburys: Gretchen is now a friend, and her quirky and charming daughter Margaret a sort of surrogate child. And Jean doesn’t mean to fall in love with Gretchen’s husband, Howard, but Howard surprises her with his dry wit, his intelligence and his kindness – and when she does fall, she falls hard.

But he is married, and to her friend – who is also the subject of the story she is researching for the newspaper, a story that increasingly seems to be causing dark ripples across all their lives. And yet Jean cannot bring herself to discard the chance of finally having a taste of happiness…

But there will be a price to pay, and it will be unbearable.

Format: Hardcover (352 pages) Publisher: Wiedenfeld & Nicolson
Publication date: 9th July 2020 Genre: Historical Fiction

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My Review

Longlisted for the Womens Prize for Fiction 2021, I’m pretty sure Small Pleasures is going to be one of my favourite books this year. For that I have to thank the team at Waterstones in Reading for selecting it for their first post-lockdown book club and making me pluck it from my bookshelves.

From their first meeting, Jean senses something in Gretchen’s husband Howard that makes her feel she can unburden herself to him despite the relatively short time she has known him. ‘She was aware that Howard was hardly an appropriate confidante, but he was so sensible and safe and unlikely to do anything at all except sympathize, that she couldn’t restrain herself.’  I loved the way their relationship progresses in small, tentative steps: a glance or touch of the hand, a compliment, a hitherto unspoken secret, a gift that is the product of ‘careful and loving workmanship’.

Clare Chambers shows such insight into the loving relationship that develops between Jean and Howard. Yes, there is passion but there are also ‘the small acts of domestic intimacy – sharing a bath, preparing a meal side by side at the stove, putting clean sheets on the bed..’ Can’t you just imagine how Jean, who has often felt lonely and the highlight of whose evenings has frequently been listening to the Light Programme on the radio with her mother, could savour such moments.

I also enjoyed the relationship that developed between Jean and Gretchen’s daughter, Margaret. Jean enjoys taking on the role of ‘unofficial aunt’ and taking Margaret on outings. Jean is constantly surprised by Margaret’s ‘charming and unexpected comments – at once innocent and profound’, even if such comments include complex words that would not usually be in the vocabulary of a young girl, and which she claims are whispered to her by angels.

Jean’s relationship with Howard gives her a glimpse of a different future, one she could never have imagined or thought she deserved. This is brought home by a holiday Jean and her mother take. In the hotel they are staying at, Jean sees another mother and daughter and the mother’s obvious complete dependence on her daughter gives Jean an uncomfortable insight into what perhaps awaits her. Despite this, Jean suffers a constant sense of guilt about her relationship with Howard, what it might do to Gretchen, and more importantly Margaret, and how this can be combined with meeting her mother’s needs. This leads Jean to make an act of great sacrifice, one which will involve giving up everything she has come to hold dear.

For me the playing out of the relationship between Jean and Howard was so completely enthralling, I almost forgot about the event that brought them together, Gretchen’s claim that Margaret is the result of a virgin birth. Whether you believe it is a possibility or are sceptical from the start, the process of trying to establish the truth will keep you enthralled and amazed at what was scientifically possible even back in the 1950s. In the end, it is Jean’s journalistic instincts and tenacity that leads to uncovering the truth.

Readers for whom, like me, the opening page of Small Pleasures remained at the back of their mind whilst reading the book, will have experienced a growing sense of unease as the months go by and a particular date draws near. I’m not ashamed to admit that the ending of the book – and a bunch of roses – reduced me to tears but I like to think the opportunity for miracles survives even in the darkest places.

There was so much I loved about Small Pleasures that I’m not going to say much more other than to encourage you to read it for yourself. However, I will share my favourite line from the book: ‘I love him, she thought with a kind of wonderment. I never intended to, but now I do’.

In three words: Tender, intimate, heart-breaking

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Clare ChambersAbout the Author

Clare Chamber’s first job after reading English Literature at Hertford College, Oxford, was working for Diana Athill at Andre Deutsch. Clare’s first novel Uncertain Terms was published by Diana at André Deutsch in 1992 and she is the author of five other novels. Small Pleasures, her first work of fiction in ten years, became a word-of-mouth hit on publication and was selected for BBC 2’s ‘Between the Covers’ book club. (Bio/photo credit: Publisher author page)

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#BlogTour #BookReview The Shanghai Wife by Emma Harcourt @RandomTTours @Harper360UK

Shanghai Wife BT Poster

Welcome to today’s stop on the blog tour for The Shanghai Wife by Emma Harcourt. My thanks to Anne at Random Things Tour for inviting me to take part in the tour and to HarperCollins for my digital review copy.

The Shanghai WifeAbout the Book

Forbidden friendship, political conspiracy and incendiary passion draw Australian woman Annie Brand deep into the glamour and turmoil of 1920s Shanghai.

Shanghai, 1925. Leaving behind the loneliness and trauma of her past in country Australia, Annie Brand arrives to the political upheaval and glittering international society of Shanghai in the 1920s. Journeying up the Yangtze with her new husband, the ship’s captain, Annie revels in the sense of adventure but when her husband decides the danger is too great and sends her back to Shanghai, her freedom is quickly curtailed.

Against her will, Annie finds herself living alone in the International Settlement, increasingly suffocated by the judgemental Club ladies and their exclusive social scene: one even more restrictive than that she came from. Sick of salacious gossip and colonial condescension, and desperate to shake off the restrictions of her position in the world, Annie is slowly drawn into the bustling life and otherness of the real Shanghai, and begins to see the world from the perspective of the local people, including the servants who work at her husband’s Club.

But this world is far more complex and dangerous than the curious Annie understands and unknowingly, she becomes caught in a web of intrigue and conspiracy as well as a passionate and forbidden love affair she could not have predicted: one with far–reaching consequences…

Format: Paperback (304 pages)             Publisher: HarperCollins
Publication date:16th September 2021 Genre: Historical Fiction, Romance

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My Review

I really enjoyed the book’s opening section in which Annie travels along the Yangtze river on the working boat captained by her husband, Alec. In fact, I was as disappointed as Annie when, because of the fear of attack by pirates, she is forced to return to Shanghai and the relative safety of the International Settlement, the part of the city not under Chinese control. (The author’s Historical Note provides more information on the political situation in Shanghai during the period in which the book is set.)

The Shanghai Wife provides a vivid insight into the growing unrest in Shanghai in the 1920s, although this is almost exclusively seen from the point of view of the foreign inhabitants living securely within the confines of the International Settlement. In particular, the ladies of the Shanghai Maritime Club are largely oblivious to what is going on in the old city, more interested as they are in their bridge parties, preparations for the next Club ball or when tea will be served. Only Annie senses a growing apprehensiveness as she travels around the city. ‘This was more than the edginess of summer heat; there was fresh tension in the streets’. That tension will shortly erupt into violence.

Annie is well-meaning but impulsive and rather naive, as a result of which she frequently puts herself – and others – at risk, on occasions with deadly consequences. Even Annie admits at one point that ‘she had made a terrible mess of things’. From the beginning, there are hints of a traumatic event in Annie’s past the nature of which is only revealed at the end of the book but goes some way to explaining her instinct to try to rescue others in danger.  Despite expressing a desire to learn more about the daily lives of the Chinese people and railing against the racist attitudes of the Club ladies, Annie demonstrates a degree of hypocrisy, relying as she does on servants whose names are never used, referred to merely as ‘houseboy’ or ‘wash amah’.

Chow, the maitre d’hotel of the Club, is the exception; he’s a living, breathing individual not just one more ‘Chinaman’. Annie welcomes his attentive attitude and kindness towards her, especially when events leave her feeling lonely and isolated.  Their friendship is frowned upon by other less enlightened members of the International Settlement; interracial relationships definitely being a no-go area. Nevertheless, Chow tries to respond to Annie’s wish to experience the ‘real’ Shanghai, not all of which she finds attractive.  He chides her, ‘This is my Shanghai, Mrs Brand, the vitality and the poverty, but perhaps you are not ready. Remember, please, that your standards are not ours, do not judge what you don’t understand.’  It turns out the city is a place of hidden dangers leading to some dramatic events towards the end of the book.

If you long for a combination of mystery, romance and melodrama set in a fascinating location, then The Shanghai Wife may be just the book for you.

In three words: Romantic, dramatic, action-packed

Try something similar: Summer of the Three Pagodas by Jean Moran

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Emma Harcourt Author PicAbout the Author

Emma Harcourt has worked as a journalist for over 25 years, in Australia, the UK and Hong Kong. In 2011, she completed the Faber Academy Writing a Novel course and The Shanghai Wife was born. Emma lives in Sydney with her two daughters. She is currently working on her second novel.

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The Shanghai Wife Graphic