by Clare Chambers
Publication Date October 5, 2021
Published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson
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1957, south-east suburbs of London. Jean Swinney is a journalist on the local newspaper, caring for her truculent mother and - unmarried in her mid-30s - considered a spinster of her parish. This limited existence of tedious chores and small pleasures is suddenly cracked open when a reporting assignment takes Jean into the intimate lives of the Tilburys: Gretchen Tilbury has made the sensational claim that her daughter Margaret is the product of a virgin birth and Jean is determined to uncover the truth. But as the initial medical tests seem to confirm Gretchen's version of events, Jean is surprised to find her life has become strangely (and not unpleasantly) intertwined with that of the Tilburys: Gretchen is now a friend, and her quirky and charming daughter Margaret a sort of surrogate child. But it is Gretchen's husband, Howard, who exerts the greatest gravitational pull on Jean: she doesn't mean to fall in love with him, but Howard surprises her with his dry wit, his intelligence and his kindness - and when she does fall, she falls hard. But he is married, and to her friend - who is also the subject of the story she is researching for the newspaper, a story that increasingly seems to be causing dark ripples across all their lives. And yet Jean cannot bring herself to discard the chance of finally having a taste of happiness... But there will be a price to pay, and it will be unbearable.
Small Pleasures by Clare Chambers is a beautifully written fictional story of ordinary people, who lead ordinary lives until unusual circumstances change their lives forever. The writing is so beautiful and simplistic, and I was drawn into the story and into the character’s lives quickly and I couldn’t stop until I was done with the book.
The main story focuses on Jean, a very ordinary small-town journalist who discovers a woman, Gretchen, who claims to have given a virgin birth to her now 10-year-old daughter, Margaret. The book revolves around Jean, doing the research to try and find the truth to her claim. In doing the research, Jean becomes very involved with Gretchen and her family. Gretchen’s husband, Howard knows about the circumstances surrounding Margaret’s birth and he believes his wife’s claim. Jean also takes a liking to the daughter, Margaret, the outcome of the virgin birth, and she eventually feels very protective of her.
I liked that this story gave a realistic view of a time in the past. So many books romanticize a time period, making it sound heroic and gives a nostalgic look at the time period. The author here gave the reader a very realistic glimpse at life in Kent in 1957 for an average person. The book is full of normal and mundane details of the time, giving the reader a real sense of what life was like and how people managed their daily life and chores during that time period.
Jean’s research into Gretchen’s claim gives the book a bit of mystery as we wonder if Gretchen’s claims are true and if so, how did Margaret’s conception occur? The details of the medical tests and Jean’s search for the women who lived in the convalescent home where Gretchen was a patient during the time she became pregnant with Margaret are interesting and give some insight to care for the very ill during this time period.
Small Pleasures is a book that you’re going to love, or possibly dislike, as it’s not glamorous, or filled with exciting scenes, but it’s so ordinary and simplistic that it’s beautiful. I received a complimentary copy of this book. The opinions expressed in this review are completely my own.