Reasons to be Cheerful—Nina Stibbe

[I read this 2019 comic novel in two halves, writing about the first half before reading on.]

2 June 2020
Part 1—Chapters 1-16
I’m sure that if I spent an evening with Nina Stibbe there would be plenty of laughs. The voice she uses in this novel is a good imitation of somebody likeable and funny talking to you about the fixes she gets into. This is fiction, but Nina Stibbe has never made a secret of the way she takes aspects of her own life, plus some invented material, to create these entertainments. A lot of observational stand-up comedians do this, engaging us with everyday truths we all recognise and exaggerating them until they’re faintly ridiculous. I know that reviewers often mention Victoria Wood in relation to her, and you can see what they mean. She would have been great to be with too. I remember an unscripted interview with her, ranging over a lot of different things in her life—usually faintly shaming or ridiculous—and it was great. For me, Nina Stibbe isn’t Victoria Wood…

…but she’s always engaging and often genuinely funny. Her first-person narrator gets into realistic-sounding scrapes, is surrounded by other people who aren’t making a heroic success of their lives either, and she makes it feel real. I keep having to remind myself that Lizzie Vogel isn’t a real person who became an entirely unqualified dental nurse in Leicester in 1980, because Nina Stibbe has perfected the skill of including just enough personal detail to make it completely believable. I’m pretty sure she was never a dental nurse, but I bet she knew men at work like JP Wintergreen, knew a boy like Andy, had a mother a bit (or a lot) like Lizzie’s mother… and so on. But you realise very quickly that none of that matters. Like stand-ups, she’s just here to entertain.

Lizzie gets the job, she assures us, because in 1980 it was possible to wing it in an interview if you were good with words. Which she is. Part of her problematic/charming mother’s parenting style was to make her kids read a lot—Lizzie is blasé about the great classics she’d read before she discovered Woman and Woman’s Own in the dentist’s waiting-room—so words are always easy for her. It might not seem terribly plausible that anyone so bright would really have left school without any qualifications in the late 1970s, but never mind that. She impresses Tammy, the woman who is giving up the job to have JP’s babies, and the job is hers. How hard can it be?

Not very, it seems. The prologue is based on an incident when JP, attempting to extract his own front teeth, becomes woozy with the anaesthetic, leaves a broken root still in the gum and needs help. Lizzie is in too much of a hurry to go chasing a different dentist they know, so she offers to do it instead. Later in the novel, she finishes off the story. Her description of how she is able to use the forceps she’s seen him using is as realistic as anything you’d read in one of those doctor memoirs that have been doing the rounds lately—if Stibbe hasn’t actually done it, she’s done the right amount of research to fit it seamlessly into Lizzie’s way presenting herself, half self-deprecating, half let’s-just-get-on-with-it. It’s the opposite of the comic hyperbole she uses at other times—like Andy being from exactly the family you wouldn’t want to mix with, or Lizzie’s mother’s catalogue of bad habits, that she sems able to rid herself of if she needs to. If I remember rightly, she gives up near-alcoholism for the sake of looking after a stray dog. Which, inevitably, ends up with only three legs and one ugly eye after being run over.

Briefly…. Andy becomes a boyfriend of the most undemanding kind, JP is a would-be representative of the Patriarchy but is just too ridiculous to carry it off, Tammy (the same age as Lizzie’s mum, 40) is on a different planet and is secretly on the pill as JP keeps ‘trying,’ at the most inconvenient times, to father the child who will keep the Wintergreen bloodline doing its bit for the gene-pool after his grown-up son has a vasectomy…. Andy is now a lodger at Lizzie’s mum’s house in Lizzie’s own room now that, as her mum reminds her, she’s moved out. Lizzie hates eating in public following trauma-inducing family meals in the restaurant of Leicester’s most upmarket store, so Andy is finding it hard to get her to come for dinner with him. They do have sex occasionally but, somehow, it’s at the level of a polite picnic even though it is quite enjoyable. You can see why I thought of Victoria Wood—even the perfectly-observed product placement is there. I think she’d name-checked ten different toothpastes even before the end of the job interview.

I could go on—I’m sure plenty of other stuff has happened that I can’t remember at just this minute—but I’m going to read Part 2 instead.

3 June
Parts 2 and 3—Chapters 17-30, plus Epilogue
It carries on like Part 1, episodically and affably enough, except for a single cataclysm. (Spoiler alert: If you haven’t read the novel and plan to do so, don’t read any further now.) There are a couple of things I ought to have mentioned before, which are that Lizzie’s reformed mother is writing a novel and sending drafts to publishers, and that Lizzie herself fantasises about moving to London and becoming a Woman’s Own writer. Otherwise JP, still in his role as sexist dinosaur, is the only irredeemable character in the book. Everybody else, like Lizzie herself, is slightly chaotic and/or slightly flawed, but doing their best to just get by…

…which they all do. Little worries and obstacles appear, but they’ve usually been overcome by the end of the chapter, or a couple of chapters at most. Oh no, Lizzie’s friend Priti can’t get emergency treatment on her front tooth done without extraction on the NHS—but it’s OK, Lizzie really can do the required dental work. And Andy—something else I forgot to mention—is such a good dental technician he’ll be able to create the bridge when the gum has healed. Oh no, Lizzie fails her driving test spectacularly enough for the examiner to complain that she nearly killed them both—but it’s OK, she passes a few chapters further on. Oh no… and so on. Her mother keeps getting rejections for her novel, despite the required changes she makes. But she gets a proper interview with an editor in the Epilogue and, well, maybe it might come off after all. The vicar, whom Lizzie has to have confirmation lessons with in a deal with her grandmother to get her free driving lessons from the vicar’s wife, turns out to be lovely. Andy’s brother, the scary or difficult one, also turns out all right in the end.

Even the ‘Is he my boyfriend or not?’ thing with Andy gets resolved, marvellously and romantically. It isn’t the trip to London that seals it, despite the wonderful photograph that brings them close even though it turns out to be only a scam. What does it is his drive to Loughborough to rescue her from being on her own all night at JP’s dinner-dance with Tammy. She has driven them there for practice, JP having neglected to mention—boo, hiss—that she doesn’t have an invitation and therefore can’t go in. She phones home, gets Andy by chance and, once he’s there, they gate-crash the last part of the dance. Is there a dry eye in the house?

If so, it isn’t dry at the end of the chapter, which ends Part 2. The local radio headline has it that a man lost control of his vehicle at a ‘notorious accident blackspot,’ and yes, it’s Andy, ‘pronounced dead at the scene.’ So the remaining five chapters, including the epilogue, are a different series of episodes from what we might have expected. Vicar: wonderful. Lizzie’s mother: all you could hope for. ‘Mr Holt,’ as she and her siblings always call their stepfather: comes into his own. Even silly, muddle-headed Tammy comes out all right in the end, not because of anything to do with Andy’s death, but because she leaves JP. And Stibbe is able to complete one of the book’s few long-term story arcs, the awful marriage that both of them pretend is fine. (Tammy had even moved back into the flat with Lizzie for a while, and it had taken an it-can’t-possibly-work triumph of a dinner party to bring them back together. Temporarily.)

So, just a couple of loose ends to be tied up. One is another of those long-term arcs, JP’s half-arsed attempts to prove himself worthy of the local Freemasons lodge—which finally come to absolutely nothing after his racist attitude towards Priti is brought to the attention of an Indian lodge member her family knows. And Lizzie’s hope for a move to London, as recommended both by Mr Holt and the agony aunt at Woman’s Own, is settled in the epilogue along with her mother’s wish for her novel to be taken seriously. Her mother gets he a job at a boutique so chic they see Elizabeth Jane Howard walking out of it—and the job is Lizzie’s because it’s run by the boutique owner from Leicester she bought the ‘Ossie’ dress from that Andy liked. Let joy be unconfined…

…and, no doubt, let the publishing world be waiting with bated breath for the fourth volume of episodes from Lizzie Vogel’s life. I only found out last night that this is the third, the others being Man at the Helm, which introduces the family and no doubt some of the other characters, and Paradise Lodge. It accounts for a certain sketchiness in Lizzie’s back-story in this volume—why did she leave school so early?—and in the treatment of some of the other characters. Poor old Mr Holt the stepfather feels terribly underdrawn, until he comes out right in the end.

As for me… I guess I’m not really the target demographic. It’s engaging, very—I can’t say affable again—buoyant? good-humoured?—but it’s not for me. Sorry.