Nina Stibbe is the hero of finding your voice. For 30 years, certain that she was supposed to be a writer, she struggled to write a novel. Then her sister gave her letters that Stibbe had written to her long ago when she was working as a nanny and she turned them into 2013 memoir, Love, Nina. When it became a bestseller, she realized her strength lay in the voice of these letters: half-innocent, opinionated and dry; observant, fast as a ferret and brilliantly funny.
She used a similar voice for her first novel, Man at the Helm, and perfected it in two others. Her fourth, Reasons to Be Cheerful, won the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Award for Comedy Fiction and the Comedy Women in Print award. Her acceptance speech for the latter recalled a male reviewer’s description of the novel as “an enjoyable but light-hearted coming-of-age story”. She said she wouldn’t have bothered if he didn’t find it funny, or if he hated it. “But this book is not light. It contains extremely important things. But maybe not for him.
His gift is deceptive. Maybe that might sound light, especially to men, but it’s not. She assembles the words with an immaculate ear for the absurd, mixing satire and bathos, juxtaposing different objects and feelings in an offbeat way in sentences so funny that you howl with laughter. But underneath is a piercing, nonjudgmental message about tolerating others — people very different from you (“How these men look at their phones”), or friends who sometimes stab you in the back.
On one level, her new novel is Elena Ferrante rewritten into an English comedy: the story of a 30-year friendship between two women that takes place in and around the University of Rutland (her motto: ‘One day, I ‘would amaze the world’). . Susan, the narrator, first meets Norma when she works for Norma’s parents in their haberdashery. Susan opts for marriage and a baby without graduating, while Norma, first tutored in Eng Lit by Susan, goes from strength to glamorous strength. She does a doctorate, gets a staff job, publishes award-winning poetry, and temporarily runs the university. Susan, living on the edge of campus, so near and yet so far away, takes on a modest facilitator’s job as the Vice Chancellor’s PA.
Friendship advances in fits and starts with contemporary literary life slyly bubbling in the background. Sometimes friends are barely on good terms. Norma steals Susan’s wedding dress design and places her at a tea party at Buckingham Palace; we still don’t know who is jealous of whom. But, at the start of the pandemic in 2020, friendship wins out.
The book is just as hilarious as Reasons to Be Cheerful. The whimsical, wildly original and beautifully perceptible phrases are perfectly clocked. “The smell of hotel soap, the clammy texture of cloth-wrapped towels, and the terrible feeling of being married. His manhood swaying before him like a long curved ball… [Norma] imagined popping him with a pin, an early insight into the prejudice against large penises that became a recurring theme in his later poetry.
But the new novel tackles a larger canvas. Despite the humor, there are failures, disappointments and pain in the lives of many people around Susan. And alongside her friendship with Norma, another story slowly unfolds: Susan’s deep, if petulant, love for her husband Roy – who, postpartum, photographs the placenta rather than the baby, and when he discovers that Susan fed him a vegan diet, phones a lawyer to find out if he can press charges. Their daughter is also difficult and unpredictable. But there are also the kind of moments that, without shouting about it, make a life worth living. Despite the bubbly, satirical voice and laughter at the smallness of Little England, Stibbe creates a world in which tolerance and forgiveness are the key, even in these dark and frightening times, to the possibility of a happy life.