Her first impression was that she had been mistaken for someone else. She looked behind her but there was no one in the open doorway. The stranger was beckoning and indicating the empty chair beside his own. His eyes held such an expression of certainty and recognition that she began to smile apologetically. It was as if he had been watching the door for a long time and Ann had kept him waiting. She did notice, as she excused herself along the row of seated mothers, that he had yellow curls and a flattish nose like a prize fighter. He was dressed appallingly in some sort of sweater with writing on the chest. On his feet he wore very soiled tennis pumps without laces.
I read this a few weeks ago, rather ahead of time for Annabel's Beryl Bainbridge Week, and then never got around to reviewing it. Never mind - better late then never.
I joined enthusiastically in a BB Week a few years ago, having never read her before that. I immediately became a huge fan, and so I was pleased to order a couple of novels this time round I'd never read and knew nothing about. I'm sorry to say I didn't finish the second one, Young Adolf - it was intriguing but I just wasn't in the right mood. This one, however, I did finish, and admired, though it's by no means my favourite among those I've read. I tend to think of Bainbridge as specialising in black comedy, and though this does feature here, it's quite a painful picture of a disastrous relationship.
The quotation at the top shows Ann's first encounter with William - she's at a school play when she notices him staring at her. Scruffy but undoubtedly charming, he quickly inserts himself into her life. Ann is a secretary, and has only just got engaged to Gerald, who has disappeared off to America expecting her to wait for his return. But only a few days later, she has become completely addicted to William, who turns out to be the most hopeless, unreliable, feckless and untruthful man you could ever hope (or rather hope not) to meet. He has an ex-wife and some children, and disappears many nights saying he must read his children their bedtime stories. He has a current wife, who adores him and puts up with his constant infidelity with a brave smile. He has various untrustworthy friends of both genders with whom he needs to spend time. But he constantly assures Ann that she is the most important thing in his life and despite all her fears and misgivings she lets herself be convinced. Even her rather terrifying mother, a brilliant creation by the way, sees how useless and damaging William is to her daughter:
Voice beginning to rise in pitch, her mother said, “His wife should be told.”
“She has been,” Ann said. “She thinks William’s a beautiful person.”
“Shooting’s too good for him,” said her mother shrilly. It was as if she’d promised herself, or someone else, that she would not shout recriminations at Ann and was now relieved that there were others on whom she could vent her feelings.
I understand that Bainbridge's novels are frequently autobiographical in origin, and it wouldn't surprise me at all to learn that this one was. Many of us will have had friends who've allowed themselves to stay with a man who is clearly an absolute disaster in their lives -- some of us may have even done it ourselves. William doesn't abuse Ann either physically or mentally, although the disconnect between his adorable sweetness to her and the increasingly obvious lies he tells do actually amount to mental abuse.
All in all, I think my problem was that I found this novel edged a little too far in the direction of painful. It's obviously not one of Bainbridge's most celebrated novels and I expect that may be why. But that should not put you off reading it - it certainly is a brilliantly constructed work with many moments of black comedy and great perception of how human beings can deceive themselves. So thanks to Annabel for getting me reading BB again!