By Nina Stibbe
“Extrapolating, I might research an article about all the things men don’t like women doing…My own limited experience showed that men disliked their wives driving, eating onions and spices, having a dog, talking about sport, laughing loudly, spending money on fripperies, disagreeing with them, chatting on the phone, climbing trees, talking about dogs, mowing the lawn in flip-flops, wearing too much make-up, being too fat, being too keen, worrying and, I suspect, reading the news on TV.”
Despite its title, Nina Stibbe’s latest novel has nothing whatsoever to do with the punk icon Ian Dury’s song (although he’s name-dropped a couple of times since he’s representative of the era in which the story is set), but takes place in and around Leicester in 1979/80, poking gentle fun at English provincial life.
Winner of this year’s Wodehouse Prize for Comic Fiction, Reasons to be Cheerful is the third instalment in the endearingly dysfunctional Vogel family’s saga (following on from Man at the Helm and Paradise Lodge). The protagonist, Lizzie, has now turned 18 and is working as an unqualified dental assistant to the racist, misogynistic and frankly obnoxious JP Wintergreen. She has recently left her family home and is living in a flat above the surgery that comes with the job. Though intelligent and literary-minded, she is also entertainingly naive about life outside her small village – indeed, her descriptions of the quotidian can be unintentionally hilarious.
“The subject of contraception occupied me for a while. I wondered if the pill would suit me. I mean, my mother couldn’t have it due to vascular peculiarities, nor my sister because of her acne rosacea and fearfulness.”
Lizzie begins a chaste relationship with Andy Nicolello, a handsome young dental technician, and expends much thought on how best to encourage him to go all the way. Still a virgin, she wonders if the combined socks and unisex sandals she wears to combat athlete’s foot may not be “conducive to sex”. When he becomes the tenant of her wonderfully wayward mother, the relationship gets increasingly complicated, and she’s left questioning if he was ever really attracted to her in the first place.
Regularly described as the heir to Sue Townsend, Stibbe’s novels are semi-autobiographical (she really did work in a dentist’s office), with great attention to period detail. Reasons to be Cheerful is about becoming an adult, loss of innocence and the development of self. You could call it a whimsical tale touching on status anxiety, getting above one’s station in life, salad spinners, casual sexism, Woman’s Own and dentistry in the ‘80s – but above all it’s a reflection on love and loss in a period of great social upheaval in Britain.
Stibbe’s books are cathartic and amusing at a time when we most need respite from politics and brief opportunities to chuckle over life’s little absurdities. Luckily you don’t need to have read the first two titles in this loosely linked trilogy to enjoy the story, but I guarantee you will want to seek them out after reading this ingenious vintage comedy.
“Lizzie’s the type to paddle along with the tide for years and then suddenly win a dog-photography competition or something…”
Many thanks to Viking for providing an advance review copy of this title.
I read this title for 20 Books of Summer 2019