(Custom House/HarperCollins, 2021)
Sometimes people come into our life and help us find the truth we have been searching for all along. Clare Chambers (Learning to Swim) explores that idea in her latest novel, Small Pleasures, while keeping us entertained in a mystery behind an alleged miracle.
Set in 1950s London, we meet Jean Swinney who is a local reporter at the paper about to encounter her strangest story yet: a woman claiming a miraculous conception. Gretchen Tillbury is a Swiss woman who is adamant about never having sex when her daughter Margaret was conceived, and takes Jean on a wild ride of testing her theory. Jean is skeptical of course, but once she meets Gretchen, Margaret, and Howard (the husband, but not the biological father), she can’t help but grow curious of their lives and eager to be part of the family.
This isn’t a thriller by any means, so there is no malicious intent here. While Jean may find herself obsessed with this family, she is not a character from Single White Female who is eager to steal Gretchen’s identity. She has impeccable constraint, and we see it tested when Jean falls for Howard and doesn’t act on it—not right away, at least. Instead she harbors deep feelings of guilt and misery, and tries her best to keep it all to herself. The yearning for someone we can’t have, the quest for a happier life, is all too real and relatable, making Jean a character we can root for.
The journey Jean is led on to discover the truth behind Gretchen’s conception is an amusing one, but not the only story. The lives of these two different women who both feel trapped and ache to escape to find happiness, possibly even true love, is what keeps you turning the page. Jean is pushing forty and spends all her free time taking care of her mother in their home, feeling liable if she ever stays out too late or when enjoying herself if her mother is at home waiting. And her mother is always at home waiting. There is this quiet sadness about Jean centering around her burning hunger to indulge in small pleasures but rarely having the opportunity:
Twice a week, on Tuesdays and Fridays between eight-thirty and nine, Jean was the mistress of the house, free to do as she liked. She could listen to the wireless without her mother’s commentary, eat standing up in the kitchen, read in perfect silence or run naked through the rooms if she chose.
Gretchen, on the other hand, is in a marriage she doesn’t want to be in with a person she is not in love with (“All these years with Howard—I tried, I really tried. And it’s not fair on him, either. He deserves someone who loves him properly”). And yet, Gretchen always manages to put on a good act of not wanting to be anywhere else in the world. Her truth is invisible to outsiders, even those closest to her. There is this continuous struggle of doing what she thinks is right and what she wants to do. And when she finally takes the leap to go for what she wants and doesn’t get the results she had hoped for, we can’t help but relate. Life is messy, full of hard choices and lasting consequences, and Chambers doesn’t give us anything different.
The stories of these women are complicated, although they seem so simple on the outside, making for an intriguing read. The writing is also easily digestible and even though there is a mystery to uncover and some hard topics to digest (abuse, mental illness, rape), this book a comfort, a small pleasure to enjoy.