BOOK REVIEW: Reasons to be Cheerful

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.”

REASONS TO BE CHEERFULDespite 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

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27 replies

  1. Hi Paula,
    just thinking about you and your partner and hoping that you are both doing well.
    Also, I want to thank you for taking the time to read my blog. It means a lot to me.

  2. I don’t usually read comedies, but I could certainly use a laugh – this review piqued my interest – thanks!

  3. I’ve not taken note of this author before but the comparison to Sue Townsend does make me sit up a little straighter in my seat. Oh, what WOULD my teen years have been like without Adrian Mole?!

    • Both Stibbe and Townsend have set their best-known novels in Leicester, plus their humour is similar (possibly regional), so I can understand why their work is often compared. Adrian Mole was a fabulous creation – I loved those books, too!

  4. I’ve really enjoyed all her others, so know I’ll love this one too once I get my hands on it.

  5. I definitely need to check this author and book out, Paula. I could use an amusing read! I saw a hummer the other day and thought of you! I put that feeder up before day’s end! ♥️

  6. Choice quotes, especially the wry social comedy, though of the wincingly awful list of man-peeves in your opening quote I’m pleased to say I only recognise one in relation to my partner’s ‘vices’ (“disagreeing with them”) — though I know that is a majorly petty fault in me! I shan’t pass up on this author now if any of her novels come my way.

  7. I love the sound of this. It sounds like the perfect antidote to the utterly depressing news at the moment. Thank you.

    • It’s great fun, Anne. I dread listening to the news these days. It was never a bundle of laughs but has become steadily more bizarre over the last couple of years. If you can’t influence what happens in the world you may as well read a funny book! 😵

  8. I’ve not read any Stibbe but now is definitely the time – I really need some respite reads, as you point out!

    • I first read Stibbe’s ‘Love, Nina’ – a collection of her hilarious letters to her sister when she was working as a nanny to the children of Mary-Kay Wilmers (one-time editor of the London Review of Books). Then I chatted briefly to her at last year’s Hay Fest and found her to be exactly as you would expect from her writing: down to earth and great fun. Her subsequent, semi-autobiographical books make light but extremely amusing reading and I would recommend them if you fancy a breather from the real world. 😊

  9. This sounds great fun, Paula. A perfect summer read 😊

  10. This sounds fun indeed and I hope your vacation has been everything you and your partner needed, Paula!

  11. This sounds delightful!


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