Reviews from Lord Taylor of Glencoe
The Woman Who Went To Bed For A Year: Sue Townsend, September 15—October 8, 2012
Sue Townsend tries to be clever with The Woman Who Went To Bed For A Year and is making an obvious effort to straddle comedy, drama, tragedy and social commentary. Unfortunately, the effort is more obvious than the result and the tone is uncomfortable throughout.
The plot is simple, and potentially interesting. A middle-aged woman effectively has a breakdown, decides to go to bed and stay there for a year. Her family and an expanding cast of bizarre eccentrics become entirely responsible for her care.
The initial progression is relatively intriguing, particularly in seeing the reactions of her husband, mother and mother-in-law. The Woman is at its best when it focuses on the family drama, the complexity of the relationships and the human drama that comes from the situation. In many ways, the book is strongest when the ensemble cast come together, rather than in small groups, largely because none of the sub-plots are interesting enough in isolation.
Townsend gets carried away and the plot descends into a sheer farce around midway, with the arrival of TV crews and desperate fans clamouring for a glance of Eva. While the whole novel is far-fetched, this element asks the reader to suspend more disbelief than is reasonable and is just a bit of nonsense too far. Strangely, the phenomenon dissipates and plays no part in the conclusion, which also renders it a pointless tangent that would have been better omitted.
The main issue with the book, to my mind, is the how unlikable all of any of the key cast are. It is impossible to sympathise with Eva Beaver when she is portrayed as selfish, self-centred and petulant. The character could have been shown in a completely different light that would have provoked a more positive response to the reader and, in turn, the book.
The supporting cast are just as dreadful. Nobody could ever tire of happily battering Poppy to death. The twins, Brian Junior and Brianne, are fleetingly funny in their deadpan hedonism but quickly grate. The only vaguely likeable character in the whole jamboree of nutjobs is Alexander, who is in fact awarded a degree of empathetic treatment. The key scene, towards the end, where the development could have been perfected is rushed and unexpected. It feels like Townsend’s editor tapped her on the shoulder and told her she had 20 pages left and could she hurry it up a bit.
The book’s conclusion fails on all levels. It simply stops. The impact of the last few pages on the characters is far more significant than the event itself, but no attention is paid to them in the slightest. There’s also no explanation as to why these same events hadn’t happened a year ago or what in particular triggered their occurrence now. None of the sub plots are resolved in any satisfying way, with threads just left dangling all over the place.
Where Adrian Mole excels in social commentary, The Woman cannot replicate it. A slapdash assortment of caricatures and weirdoes does not a social commentary make. The stupidity of Brian and Titania’s relationship mars any reflection on society; the unpleasantness and extremity of Poppy makes light of mental health issues and the mothers, Yvonne and Ruby, shift personalities so often it’s clear they are underdeveloped.
Despite an impressive back catalogue of classics, with regret, Townsend should have stayed in bed herself instead of writing this book.