Fifty is a big age. Neglected artist, Clair Harkin, tries to hide from it on the Greek Island of Symi. But, of course, she is discovered. Actually, it turns out quite well for a while – besides falling in the sea she falls in love and in lust. She also falls out badly with daughter, Jess, makes up – then starts the cycle again. Back in England, the year of being fifty is filled with demands from her controlling mother in Florida, from her diva daughter and with the need to earn a living. And no word from her new lover. Clair swallows a lot of ‘raisins’, sweet and bittersweet, before she hits the next birthday. Will it be in England, Scotland, Florida or Greece? And with whom?
“… there was something, something pretty terrible… Not just plain terrible. This was fancy terrible. This was terrible with raisins in it…” – Dorothy Parker (on turning fifty), The Middle or Blue Period.
I enjoy reading books about women whose angst about love, life, health and everything in between is something I can identify with and this book met that brief perfectly. Clair is approaching, for her, the dreaded big 5-0 and finds herself spending it on Symi, the Greek island she had visited when she was young , free and single. Only this time round she is with her truculent teenage daughter Jess. The holiday proves to be a watershed; bringing many things to a head – not least of which is the end of her pedestrian and lack lustre relationship with Howard, while embarking on a volatile fling with holiday rep Fraser.
Once back home, real life re-asserts itself with a vengeance and Clair finds herself overwhelmed with family crises and employment issues. The delights of Symi suddenly seem a long time ago, though not without repercussions that result in changes she could never have imagined.
OK negatives first so we can move on the many positives. I found the book took a while to settle into due to the lack of quotation marks and having to hark back to the beginning of the chapter to see who was speaking. This, combined with internal thoughts being inserted in italics meant until I had a better grasp of characters I was occasionally confused. Of course that could equally well be nothing to do with the format and have more to do with my age! It should also be said that while initially confusing, it was a clever way of really getting to understand the characters inside and out – eventually. While I also enjoyed the stay on Symi, for me it could have been a little shorter, I became far more engaged when Clair and Jess returned home and the book took on a less flippant tone. There that’s it, and I acknowledge they are things which other readers may well not bothered by.
So the positives, the characters were very well drawn and I really liked Clair and was rooting for her to get to grips with her age and relationship challenges so that she could forward in a positive way. She was a very realistic mix of confidence with episodic moments of diffidence. My favourite character though was Clair’s Aunt Maggie. While appearing as a minor character in the beginning, her continued and growing presence throughout the book, reflected her constant and important role in Clair’s life. Her back story was a poignant one and her warmth, wisdom and caring nature was a balance to that of Clair’s mother.
Despite Jess, being the only teenager, with typical teenage tantrums and attitudes, through the course of the book she did grow up and come of age. In a way she was not the only one, as the book saw many characters grow; start to feel comfortable in their own skin and realise what was important in their lives and what they wanted from it. Clair, her erstwhile lover Harold and her fledgling lover Fraser being prime examples.
For me it was a mix of sun, sea, and yes sex in Symi for the first part, that perfectly captured the holiday romance and the Greek holiday resort culture set against the humorous background of a package holiday. Anyone who has ‘done’ a guided package holiday will recognise the characters that are part of any group, only this time you can enjoy their antics at someone else’s expense! The second part of the book, still had its humorous moments but was a more reflective and adult look at life and the challenges it can bring. As such it had a little bit of everything that combined to present an enjoyable and accomplished debut novel.