An Awfully Good Book

An Awfully Big Adventure by Beryl Bainbridge. 1989 French title: Le Dernier amour du Capitaine Crochet (Out of print)

First thing, I wonder why the French publisher decided to give such a silly title to such a wonderful book. Of course, it is out of print! Who would like to buy a book entitled Captain Hook’s Last Love? A Disney fan looking for a spin-off of Peter Pan? Are there many such readers out there? To top it off, it relates to events that don’t happen until the last third of the book. But enough ranting, let’s talk about the novel.

The novel opens on an incomprehensible scene, a theatrical one, warning the reader that dramatic events just took place. Then the narration goes backward and starts telling the story.

Liverpool, early 1950s, Stella is 16. She lives with her Uncle Vernon and her Aunt Lily who run a small hotel, more a pension actually. Their clients are mostly tradesmen. Stella is a strange child, her schooling didn’t go well. She keeps to herself and often sounds off the mark. Uncle Vernon realised it was useless to force her into studying and called in a favor to have her hired at the local theatre. Stella took acting classes and she starts as an assistant. Meredith Potter and Rose Lipman run the theatre. It’s the beginning of the new season, other actors have been hired to set up a company. Except for Geoffrey, all were already actors before the war and some were even famous. All have issues, broken hearts, fears and some suffer from loneliness. They’re aging and seem a little ridiculous too.

We follow Stella who doesn’t act as a “normal” girl of sixteen would. Beryl Bainbridge drops hints here and there and we slowly get the picture. The girl’s mother is missing but why? Sick? Selfish? Run-away? Remarried? Stella discovers another world, helps with costumes, runs errands for the actors, plays small parts, performs in the backstage during the shows. She observes a lot and she’s quite disconcerting because she either has a flat mind and misses the obvious or happens to have an incredible insight on people. We witness the rehearsals, the nights at the local pub where the company meets and Stella progressively unfolds their lives. She has a crush on Meredith who can’t return the feeling, actually.

Stella had believed herself in love with him. Now when he allowed her so much of her time, she realized that what she had felt before was but a poor shade of the real thing. The very mention of his name caused her to tremble, and in his company she had the curious sensation that her feet and her nose had enlarged out of proportion. When he spoke to her she could scarcely hear what he said for the thudding of her lovesick heart and the chattering of her teeth. Often he told her she ought to wear warmer clothing.

Beautiful description of teenage crush. She worships him as a god and of course, he can’t be wrong, he can’t be mean and he has to be perfect in everything.

It’s a coming of age novel. Some company members try to educate Stella as she’s terribly ignorant or candid or innocent, whichever way you choose to look at it. Here’s a reporter taking advantage of her, as it happens several times in the story:

She tried to pull her hand free, but it was held fast. The protuberance under her fingers felt soft and hard at the same time, an iron fist in a velvet glove. Attempting to bring what Meredith would call a philosophical approach to her predicament, she pondered on the differences in men’s and women’s clothing. Trousers, she now realized, were so designed not because their wearers had funny legs but because men were constantly worried that an essential part of themselves might have gone missing. They wanted instant access, just to make sure things were in place. What was more puzzling was why they needed everyone else to check as well.

This passage also shows the author’s wonderful sense of humour. Actors and other theatre staff feel responsible for Stella. For example, an actress buys bras for her when she discovers she doesn’t have any. Bunny, Meredith’s right hand and stage manager, is a real keeper, following her at night from a distance to make sure she goes home safely. Uncle Vernon also cares about her a lot; he needs to let her grow up and it is difficult for him to adjust. I wondered why he insisted that she became an actress. At the time, it wasn’t a glamorous career for a woman. But that was all cleared up at the end of the book.

It’s also a book about how the past can backfire on you; how things you thought well kept in a box in the attic suddenly spring free and get back to you.

As an aside, An Awfully Big Adventure is a vivid picture of post-war England. The war isn’t the theme of the book but it’s unforgettable, it’s all in the details. People still suffer from war restrictions; Uncle Vernon’s hotel is an example. Hot water for a bath is a luxury. Clothes are expensive. Men are broken, physically or mentally.

Next door to the hotel was a garden laid out in memory of some worthy citizen of an earlier century, its beds planted with roses pruned brutally to the soil. The municipal railings had been taken away for the war effort and through the gaps in the makeshift fence of galvanized iron he saw a tramp in an army greatcoat sitting on a green bench.

The company’s state mirrors the city’s state. It’s a bittersweet tale, humans and city try to recover from the war, resume the occupations they had before these shattering years. It has left its marks and the reconstruction is slow.

I read An Awfully Big Adventure in English, in a paperback edition. Pff. I’m not good at British English, I’m sure I missed part of the fun. I couldn’t figure out the food they had on their plates. (What can be a buck rarebit?) It’s full of local expressions, some of them I knew, some other not. But I recently found a new teacher for purely British idioms, I should improve in the next months.

An Awfully Big Adventure was made into a film by Mike Newell in 1995. Hugh Grant plays Meredith (I don’t know why but I imagined Kenneth Branagh in that role) and Alan Rickman plays P.L. O Hara. Georgina Cates is a wonderful Stella. I watched it and it’s an excellent version of the book, really faithful.

Last but not least, this novel was among Guy’s virtual Christmas gifts. . Well chosen again, Guy, it’s three out of four now. Thanks for making me discover a new writer.

  1. March 4, 2012 at 3:40 am

    Glad you liked it Emma. Buck Rarebit is actually toast with a cheese-based sauce (may include eggs on top). If you get a chance to see the film grab it as Hugh Grant does a great job and I think it’s a good adaptation.

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    • March 4, 2012 at 8:33 am

      Thanks for the explanation.
      I’ve seen the film, I agree with you, it’s an excellent adaptation.

      Like

  2. March 4, 2012 at 8:33 am

    Bainbridge’s characters are usually a bit off in some way or another. BTW, as a child, I went to a restaurant and my parents ordered Welsh Rarebit for me. I refused to eat it as I thought it was rabbit.

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    • March 4, 2012 at 8:41 am

      I have The Dressmaker & The Bottle Factory Outing at home. (In translation) I’ll read more of her.

      We eat rabbit here, you know. The French usually cook it with mustard but I do an Italian recipe. We had my sister’s American penpal eat some when she visited us. She ate many things she’d never tried during her stay. She had never seen real apricots, only knew them in juice, can you believe that?

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      • March 4, 2012 at 7:19 pm

        I tried one of her historical novels once and didn’t care for it, but then I rarely read historical novels. By historical I mean anything 19thC. I really liked both The Dressmaker and The Bottle Factory Outing.

        Do you know where the apricot-less American came from?

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        • March 4, 2012 at 8:47 pm

          I don’t remember where she came from, not California or Florida, I would haven remembered. Somewhere between Midwest and East Coast. It was really strange for us, my Mom fed her with apricots during her stay, she kept on marvelling at them. (She even brought pits at home to plant apricot trees) She comes from a rather upper class, well educated. That was in the early 1990s.

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  3. March 4, 2012 at 9:54 am

    I’m glad you liked it. I have this one and The Bottle Factory Outing as well and, as you may remember, read The Dressmaker last year. I thought shewas quite a discovery. It sounds very similar to The Dressmaker, especially the structure. It also starts with a scene we can only fully understand after having finished the book. The characters are, as Guy says, occasionally a bit off but interesting and her sense of humour is great as well.
    The French title is a gem of a misnomer.

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    • March 4, 2012 at 8:41 pm

      I liked the ending, she slowly drives us there and it’s well done.
      The French title is really awful, isn’t it? I don’t understand why they didn’t tranlate it literally.

      Like

  4. March 4, 2012 at 11:58 am

    I’m glad to know Guy’s choices have been so good for you. It’s such a pleasure when recommendations turn out well.

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    • March 4, 2012 at 8:42 pm

      He did very well, didn’t he? The last one is Washington Square, also a good choice.

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  5. March 5, 2012 at 7:24 pm

    We eat rabbit in the UK too, though not very often.

    It sounds excellent. Such sly wit. “Often he told her she ought to wear warmer clothing.” Marvellous.

    Terrible cover though. So very generic.

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    • March 5, 2012 at 10:06 pm

      It’s excellent and the ending, well, I can’t say it’s totally unexpected but it is well thought and well crafted.
      Another one you’d like, I guess.

      The cover is terrible. My edition has the cover with the picture of the film. I couldn’t find the cover of the French translation. I wonder what it was with such a silly title.

      Like

  6. June 14, 2016 at 8:49 am

    I found your review via a link from Jacquiwine. Loved it – and that French title is just brilliant in its own way!

    Like

    • June 14, 2016 at 1:11 pm

      Thanks.
      I still think that the title doesn’t help selling the book. It raises false expectations.

      Like

  7. June 14, 2016 at 8:52 am

    Just dropped to read your billet now that I’ve posted my thoughts (I noticed the link in the comments on Max’s piece). Great review. I love the quotes you selected – it is indeed a wonderful description of a teenage crush. Stella’ quite intriguing, isn’t she? I suspect there quite a bit of Bainbridge in her character!

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    • June 14, 2016 at 8:54 am

      *dropped back
      *Stella’s

      Like

    • June 14, 2016 at 1:15 pm

      I read your review too and I didn’t know about Bainbridge personal connection with theatre. Yes, I guess Stella and Bainbridge had things in common.

      Like

  1. June 21, 2012 at 5:16 pm
  2. June 14, 2016 at 8:07 am

I love to hear your thoughts, thanks for commenting. Comments in French are welcome

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