Okay, so this is not a novel, but a memoir by travel journalist Gully Wells which I simply had to include in the line-up because the house in question exudes such perfect South-of-Franceness that it evokes the very essence of fantasies about that corner of the Mediterranean. It is also a very funny, very warm and entertaining book about a family that by any rights ought to be described as highly dysfunction but become here so indulged and idealised and drawn in technicolour that they are almost lovable. It began by reminding me of Françoise Sagan’s great classic coming-of-age novel, Bonjour Tristesse, without the sadness, but most of all it reminded me of Jeannette Walls comic memoir of dysfunction, The Glass Castle. It left me with the same feeling of having been deceptively entertained by people I would probably have crossed the street to avoid.
It took me a while to figure out that this is essentially an extended love letter to the kind of mother that most of us might run a mile from. Dee Wells was an American journalist transplanted to England, the victim herself of a deeply unhappy family, who had learned to use her foul, witty, angry mouth to protect and elevate herself above the common herd. She was clearly one of those very amusing people who pride themselves on being able to take a chunk out of just about any contender. But she was also a lot of manic fun, as some people living on the edge can manage to be. When Gully Wells’ first great love turns out to be Martin Amis, you can see the pattern of her mother repeated in adolescent male form – fiercely clever, determined, charming, utterly self-centred, witty, cutting, superior. But there was clearly some sort of seriously dark rage lurking in Dee Wells that nothing really assuaged. She told her daughter, aged about 15, that ‘she had never found a shrink as smart as she was. So what was the point?’ Dee Wells’ first marriage, which resulted in Gully, was over in five years, and then she ran into the Oxford philosopher and academic, ‘Freddie’ A. J. Ayer, and became determined to marry him. Freddie had other plans involving evasion. He was a charming, amusing womaniser with little interest or penetration into the delicate feelings of others. Not an unkind man by any means, but a distracted one, following his own star and steadfastly oblivious.
Gully’s mother eventually lassoed him and reined him in, and for Gully at least there was a halcyon period with her ferocious mother, her adored stepfather and soon a baby brother, Nick, spending their summers in their house in France. Given that her mother had a marked preference for girls, and little sense of balance or self-restraint, Nick was clearly the fall guy for his parents’ emotional issues, although Gully is insistent that he was deeply loved by his father. But there are very different trajectories at stake, as Gully grows up fun-loving, passionate, smart, headed for Oxford and then America, and Nick turns to drugs and truancy, eventually abandoned by both parents when they divorce.
As with any memoir, the first half of this book is by far the best. Families make for such tight-knit narratives, a crucible of emotional forces all acting upon one another in entangled but fascinating patterns, that when the moment comes for the constellation to implode, each element is fired off on its own picaresque journey that can seem meandering and unstructured by comparison. Plus, Gully’s unshakeable adoration for her family, her longing to smooth over every anecdote with the sweet honey of compassion, can sometimes seem at odds with some of the dreadful things that are happening. This is a beautifully written book, and an extremely funny one. At times it made me think of P. G. Wodehouse’s characters, all transposed to the swinging sixties and unable to leave the ideology of free love behind. But the refusal of the narrator to address the damaging implications of her parents’ behaviour can sometimes work against the reader’s sympathy. There is a risk of reacting with the stark recognition that here are a bunch of rich, bohemian types, acting faithlessly and foolishly with a stolid disregard for consequences. That other perspective lurks persistently in the second half of the book, but it isn’t at all what Gully Wells wants people to see.
I ended up wondering whether this is the place where the cultures of America and Britain part ways most noticeably. It seems to me that Americans privilege the ability to make the best of things, to see the positive in any situation and to count blessings no matter what. The British privilege emotional honesty and astute judgement; we like to see a survivor, but need to know exactly what has been survived before giving our unqualified support. We admire not the glorious winner who rises above the others, but the underdog who cheerily refuses to give in. But it’s hard to know whether Gully Wells’ idealisation of her family is due to her own nature, her cultural inheritance, or her survival skills. In any case, if you liked The Glass Castle, I would have said this was definitely a worthy successor, and in any case a well-written account of life in a rich seam of mid-20th century writers and thinkers