Four people hide secrets from the world and from themselves. Dory is disillusioned by men and relationships, having seen the damage sex can do. Fran deals with her mid-life crisis by pursuing an on-line flirtation which turns threatening. Dominic is a lost boy, trapped in a life heading for self-destruction. Stefan feels he is a failure. He searches for self-validation through his art alone.
They meet regularly at a life-drawing class, led by sculptor Stefan. All want a life that is different from the one they have, but all have made mistakes they know they cannot escape. They must uncover the past – and the truths that come with it – before they can make sense of the present and navigate a new path into the future.
When I featured author Gilli Allan on Being Anne in November – you’ll find our conversation here, one of my favourites from the last year – I promised to read and review Life Class that same month. Life being what it is, I took rather longer to get round to it – but I’m delighted to report that I’ve now, at long last, read it. I’m even more delighted to tell you that I thought it was simply wonderful.
I’ll start my review by quoting from my conversation with Gilli, because it’ll help me immensely in telling you why I enjoyed the book so much.
My guiding principle still remains the same – to write the kind of story I would like to read. I prefer books which confront the realities of contemporary life, good and bad, without flinching or looking away. Stories about how ordinary people deal with life’s inevitable hurdles – love, life, death, marriage, sex, parenthood and infidelity. My ideal readers are women like me, women who have grown out of wanting fairy stories, but want a satisfying, feel-good read, with an unpredictable and unconventional love story at the core. A story in which the flawed characters carry baggage from the past, they don’t always do the right thing, but at the end of the day they find peace and a credible, happy-for-now (and who knows….?) ending.
I don’t like categorising my reading. I read vast numbers of books and the quality of writing I come across – across all genres – so often delights me. But one thing I often struggle with is identifying with the characters – I’ll cry and laugh with them, feel their fear and pain and joy, cheer their happy outcomes, hurt when things don’t go as I hoped. But it’s a sad fact of life that the main characters are often the age of any children I might have had. Scrub that – increasingly often, they’re the age of any grandchildren I might have had. But it’s more than just an age thing – much as I love losing myself in their stories, they’re so often set in worlds that are many miles away from my reality. I wouldn’t want all the boring bits of course – who would? – but just sometimes I’d like to read about people who are a little more flawed, who have lived a little, and whose lives are just a little more like mine.
So when Gilli talked about “the kind of story I would like to read”, she immediately had my attention. And I was delighted to find that she delivered exactly what she promised – a satisfying feel-good book I really wanted to read, that spoke directly to me and that I thoroughly enjoyed.
The story was beautifully constructed around a group of people attending a life drawing class. There are four main characters – sisters Dory and Fran, new class tutor Stefan, and young Dom. Dory has returned to her home town of Strouley after the break-up of her marriage, living on her own in her first floor modern maisonette that suits her perfectly, ticking over nicely, working part-time in an NHS sexual health clinic. Her sister Fran is trying to adapt to having her husband under her feet all day after his recent retirement – she’s wonderfully drawn as the bored housewife, yearning after more excitement than lunch dates and walking the dog, getting involved in something that provides it but that soon gets out of hand. The relationship between the sisters is so well handled – Fran is the bossy one, trying to sort out her sister’s life when it’s her own that needs attention. Their interactions are so authentic, so real, that I felt I knew them so well – I loved the way those niggles and resentments that affect families came to the surface with the inevitable explosions that sometimes happen. The sisters are very different – but both are eminently likeable, sometimes frustrating, making the wrong decisions, stumbling along the way, just as we all do.
Stefan begins as remote and not in the least likeable, seeking to make a go of his teaching but passionate about his art: we slowly get to know his story, what makes him as he is, complex and fascinating, and to see him begin to smile. Young Dom, strange and alien, fascinates Fran, and fascinated me equally – and he has an unexpectedly tragic story that proves quite uncomfortable to read.
The author adds a few more perfectly drawn characters – family members, others at the life class, a few life models who don’t behave quite as they should, then sits back and allows her characters to play the story out. And it’s quite a story – one with themes and developments that I never expected, but with love at its heart. It’s a story about people and their relationships, character driven fiction at its best, the grown-up love story I’d hoped for. But it also manages to be a real page turner – I really wanted to see how things turned out for a group of real people I felt I knew so well, with all their faults and failings.
The writing is flowing and natural, shot through with gentle humour – easy to read in some ways, but appropriately difficult in other ways when the themes unexpectedly become rather darker. The art-based detail adds to the story immensely – I was fascinated by the drawing exercises, the materials they used, the construction of the sculptures, the process behind the bronzes. The settings are vividly described with the detail needed to bring it to life – the classroom, the woods around Kitesnest House (past and present), the house itself, the studio at Wyvern Mill, Dory’s exploration of Michael’s garden. And the pace of the whole is quite perfect – the way the characters were slowly revealed and unfolded mesmerised me.
I’m going on a bit, aren’t I? But I hope I’m also managing to tell you why I enjoyed it so much – without telling you the full story, which would be quite unforgivable. I loved Gilli Allan’s writing and wish I’d discovered her sooner – I can’t believe her books have languished on my kindle for so long. With Life Class, she most certainly has written a story I loved to read – and one that so many others would undoubtedly love equally.
About the author
Gilli Allan started to write in childhood, a hobby only abandoned when real life supplanted the fiction. Gilli didn’t go to Oxford or Cambridge but, after just enough exam passes to squeak in, she attended Croydon Art College.
She didn’t work on any of the broadsheets, in publishing or television. Instead she was a shop assistant, a beauty consultant and a barmaid before landing her dream job as an illustrator in advertising. It was only when she was at home with her young son that Gilli began writing seriously. Her first two novels were quickly published, but when her publisher ceased to trade, Gilli went independent.
Over the years, Gilli has been a school governor, a contributor to local newspapers, and a driving force behind the community shop in her Gloucestershire village. Still a keen artist, she designs Christmas cards and has begun book illustration. Gilli is particularly delighted to have recently gained a new mainstream publisher – Accent Press. Life Class is the third book to be published in the three book deal.
You can follow Gilli on Twitter, and she has a Facebook author page: she also has an excellent blog.