‘She tried to remember what life was like before she had met the Tilburys.
She wondered how many years – if ever – it would be before the monster of awakened longing was subdued and she could return to placid acceptance of a limited life’
– Small Pleasures
[ About 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.
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 she investigates, the more her life becomes strangely (and not unpleasantly) intertwined with that of the Tilburys: Gretchen herself, her husband Howard – with his dry wit and gentle disposition – and her charming daughter Margaret.
But they are the subject of the story Jean 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.
[ My Review ]
Small Pleasures by Clare Chambers was published July 9th with W&N (Orion Imprint). It is described as a novel ‘with the emotional intelligence of Maggie O’Farrell and the witty observational skills of Kate Atkinson….a novel of unexpected second chances set in 1950s England.’
Small Pleasures is a book that left me completely shaken on completion. Garnering incredible, and very justified, reviews from many, Small Pleasures is the story of Jean Swinney, a features writer for a local paper and is set in 1957.
‘A love story, a mystery and a celebration of the beauty in all things unfashionable – the plain, the suburban, the over-the-hill. A novel about the conflict between personal fulfillment and duty in the last gasps of the postwar period, when the huge social and sexual changes of the Sixties were all still to come‘
Jean Swinney lives with her mother in a very suffocating environment. Almost forty years of age, Jean sees a very lonely future ahead of her, caught up in the mundane of her daily life. Jean enjoys her work at the paper but, at times, the monotony becomes too much. Her colleagues have stopped asking her out for Friday evening after-work drinks as Jean always has to be home to her mother, who worries incessantly and has not left the confines of the family home for some time. An unexpected shake-up comes in the form of a letter written to the paper by a young Swiss woman, Gretchen Tilbury. This unassuming and quiet mother of one has always claimed that her daughter, Margaret, was a virgin birth. Now with her husband, Howard’s full support, Gretchen is ready for the world to know her story. Initially the paper are very cynical, as is Jean, and she is surprised and rather excited to be given the authority to investigate these claims. Jean has no expectations when she meets Gretchen but as the days pass and Jean witnesses the warmth and the gentleness of this very special family, she begins to wonder the real possibility of Gretchen’s claims.
The Tilbury family embrace Jean and soon they become very much part of her life. Through their eyes she sees her own life, her own lonely existence for what it is, a life where the simple small pleasures are the ones that motivate her to get on with her days. Jean’s mother is a constant drain on her and she soon looks for ways to escape the cynicism and the toxicity to spend time with the Tilbury family.
Howard and Gretchen have a very unique relationship. Initially Jean questions the age difference but, on a certain level, it clearly works for them. Howard is a jeweller in London and Gretchen a very talented dressmaker. Margaret is a much loved child and the family dynamic is almost perfect through Jean’s eyes. But there are deep buried secrets in the Tilbury family and as the weeks pass, Jean starts to delve deeper into their history. Accompanying Gretchen and Margaret through a battery of tests designed to unearth the truth of the virgin birth, Jean sees a woman desperate to be believed but also tired of all the medical probing and prodding. The results of the medical tests take quite some time and Jean spends those months getting to know the Tilburys better. Jean loves having Margaret by her side, she enjoys her conversations with Howard and is very taken by Gretchen. Her relationship with the family stirs something in Jean. She had lived a closeted and isolating life, one without colour, passion or love. Now, like a small stone thrown into a pond, ripples start to appear in Jean’s life as unexpected complications start to enter her world, ones that she was completely unprepared for.
Small Pleasures is very much a character-driven tale and Clare Chambers has created something really beautiful, with gorgeous depictions of burgeoning friendships and lost chances. The post-war era comes alive for the reader, with stunning descriptions and very perceptive observations throughout. The pace of the novel perfectly matches the story carrying the reader along on a captivating journey with Jean Swinney as she discovers who she is and who she could be. There is heartbreak in this novel and I was shocked and very emotional when I turned those final pages. There is an unexpected delicacy with this book. The writing is flawless throughout as the reader is completely immersed in the lives of all the characters involved.
Small Pleasures was a joy to read. From that stunning cover to that final page, this really is a charming and quite profound tale. It quietly catches your attention and compels you to not put it down. Small Pleasures is a beautiful read written with a very gentle and intuitive hand.
Recommended by me.
[ Bio ]
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 is her first work of fiction in ten years.
Twitter – @ClareDChambers