I find myself feeling really irked lately by all the little fibs and misdirects that publishers believe it’s okay to blindside readers with, as if we were a herd of cattle needing to be prodded in a certain direction. I’ve been reading a very good book, All The Hopeful Lovers by William Nicholson, and I happened upon the blurb about the author that reads: ‘All The Hopeful Lovers is the brilliant follow-up to his first novel, The Secret Intensity of Everyday Life.’ This simply cannot be true as I am in possession of one of Nicholson’s earlier novels, The Trial of True Love, and there’s a bunch of others readily available on amazon. Why the pretence? What possible good can it do to act as though Nicholson hasn’t already published three or four novels, even if they were a) with a different publisher or b) not as successful. Wouldn’t you want to sell the backlist? It annoys me because it makes me feel like the publishers think I’m a sucker, easily fooled.
Then there’s the cover. Now over the years there have been a lot of cover-related complaints on the blogs, not least about novels that feature non-white skinned protagonists that nevertheless plaster white people over the jacket. That’s seriously wrong. My irritation with this cover is the old minor crime: it is not a chick-lit book, but it’s being portrayed as such. Here is the cover:
I would never have picked this up if I hadn’t recognised Nicholson’s name and known him to be a writer I liked. The book has a cast of thousands, but not one single protagonist could correspond to the woman depicted on the front. In fact what it makes me think of is the similar sort of cover for Pulitzer winner Olive Kitteridge, which featured the bare back of a young woman in evening dress. If there is a prize for the most misleading cover of all time, this one should surely be shortlisted. Olive Kitteridge was about an ill-tempered and rather dislikeable woman of late middle-age suffering the deprivations of later life as her children left home and her husband fell ill. It was a dark, dark collection of interlinked stories, exquisitely written but oh so bitter.
Chick-lit was an isolated phenomenon. It referred to novels written by young(ish) women about other young women, that dealt in a fun and frothy manner with the tribulations of juggling early stage careers and the search for a meaningful relationship. It was good old Bridget Jones and her consort: Sophie Kinsella’s shopaholics, Isabel Wolff (certainly no relative of Tobias) and her Tiffany Trotts, Katie fforde and her legions of women who liked to clean things for a living. It sold well once upon a time because it was new and fresh and dealt with a unique set of circumstances for women that had emerged after a period of intense social change, and about which they felt for the most part uncertain, hence the retrogressive pink and perky covers and the cheery oh-my-gosh sort of tone. I saw the article in the Guardian recently that had a lot of publicity online about the decline in chick-lit. This is not surprising. Now it’s an old-fashioned subset of a genre; the social climate has altered again, we are all sick to death of pink covers with silver embossed hearts and horseshoes. Now it’s not only an anachronism, it’s an insult to stick these covers on books that are interested in chronicling the latest stage of gender warfare within the contemporary culture in a completely different style.
Why are readers considered so incapable of distinguishing between different representations of domesticity? Despite everything that has happened culturally and socially, the domestic realm in bookselling is still held apart as an idealised zone, of interest only to women, plastered with hearts and flowers and pictures of pretty ladies. And so what is happening? Concurrent with the drop in interest in chick-lit is the publishing industry’s rising belief that ‘women’s fiction’ no longer sells. Gah! This is so not good enough. There must be a massive bedrock of prejudice lurking behind the frothy covers, even more unsettling when you realise how many women work in publishing.
Okay, enough ranting now. A brief word about William Nicholson’s book which is indeed a follow-up, even a sequel to The Secret Intensity of Everyday Life which I read last year and loved. Several of the characters from the latter turn up in it, only eight years have passed so for the most part they are the children who have now reached an age to be leaving home for university and starting out on their first relationships. Once again Nicholson progresses through the lives of a large number of characters over a restricted period of time, one week in December. In the last novel we were taken behind the façade of each character’s life to show the intense inner world that existed there. This time there is a pattern of lovers who are painfully dislocated because they inhabit very different emotional spaces. So one of the lead stories features Belinda, in late middle-age, contemplating in a jokey sort of way how nice it would be to have an affair, until she discovers this is just what her husband has been doing. After the ensuing crisis, Tom ends his liaison and wants life to return to normal; he doesn’t see what more he can do. But of course Belinda is still furious and in no position to pick up where they left off. Nicholson is an excellent writer and his novels work because he writes unsentimentally but with searing truthfulness about the way people behave in relationships.
There’s only one criticism I have to make of this novel: there’s about four characters too many. I’m really good at remembering all the names of protagonists in a novel and what their storyline is, and yet I find myself pausing at each new chapter, thinking, hmm, now this person would be…? So if you’re easily confused, this may not be the book for you. But if you like proper novels, with stories about how people live, written with insight and accessibility – and you can bear the cover – he is well worth a try.