Growing Up for Beginners by Claire Calman (Boldwood Books, £8.99)
For as long as Eleanor can remember, she has snuck a look at the end of a book before reading it.” This is the first sentence of Claire Calman’s novel and clearly invites the reader to do the same. A quick skim of pages 335 and 336 makes it clear that Eleanor’s route to happiness will involve leaving her husband, Roger.
Knowing this, did not spoil the book one bit. Like Eleanor, I want to “know that the terminus would definitely be there before embarking on the journey.” But ghastly Roger disapproves so much that, on their honeymoon, he commits the ultimate crime: “You’re not going to be a naughty little wifey and read the ending first, I hope,” he teases. Then, with his Swiss Army knife, he cuts the final page from all the books she has brought with her.
And so, at the start of both book and marriage, we know Roger must be left. It takes Eleanor decades to gain the same understanding.
Roger’s utter ghastliness is much more fun to read about than it would be to live with. He decides when Eleanor will celebrate her birthday; he calls her a “sad little kitten”; he buys her hideous slippers and badgers her to wear them, leaves his cafetière to be washed up, and generally bosses and controls Eleanor, banning her from swimming in Hampstead’s Ladies’ pond: “It’s just so selfish. You’re my wife, the mother of my children. I need to know I can trust you to be safe and sensible,” before going off to moan about the state of the bathroom cupboard and trim his nostril hair.
Interwoven with Eleanor’s path to freedom is that of Andrew, kicked out by his girlfriend, back living with his parents and finding it hard to gain independence and self respect .
And then there are the secrets hidden in the past of Eleanor’s father, Conrad, who works with Andrew at the British Museum. The younger man restores a painting for Conrad, of a beautiful woman, green-eyed with bright-flame hair, who “gazed out at you, seeming like a magical marine creature, watching you from beneath the cool, glimmering depths of the sea.” The story of who this woman is and why it means so much to Conrad is the link that pulls the various threads of the story together, with only a few coincidences along the way.
This vastly enjoyable read is about the importance of knowing yourself and living with confidence — the perfect antidote to a diet of conventional romance.
Keren David is associate editor (features) of the JC