It’s a real pleasure today to help launch the blog tour for Growing Up for Beginners by Claire Calman, and to share my review: published today by Boldwood Books, it’s now available for kindle (and free via Kindle Unlimited), in paperback and as an audiobook. My thanks to Rachel at Rachel’s Random Resources for the invitation and support, and to the publishers for my advance reading copy (provided via netgalley).
Do you know, I’ve been really looking forward to reading this book for quite a while. The lovely ladies from Boldwood told me it was on its way when we met at the RNA Awards back in early March, and I could remember reading books from this lovely author longer ago than I like to admit to. You might just remember Love Is A Four Letter Word too – but my goodness, is it really 20 years since the paperback was published? Or maybe Lessons for a Sunday Father, or I Like It Like That? Or then again, maybe you won’t – I’ve been reading for rather longer than some! But Claire Calman is back, and I’m delighted – and this book really was everything I hoped it would be…
It’s not easy being a grown-up, but at 47, Eleanor hoped she’d be better at it by now…
When Eleanor waves her daughter off for a gap-year trip, she finds herself stuck as a satellite wife, spinning in faithful orbit around her domineering husband, with only her clever but judgmental father Conrad for comfort.
Andrew isn’t mastering the art of growing up either. But when he finds his belongings dumped in bin bags on the drive, even he can see that his girlfriend is hinting he should move out. With no other options, he moves back in with his parents.
Backing onto their garden lives artist Cecilia, living in chaotic clutter and dreaming of her ex-lovers, still acting like a stroppy teenager at the age of 66.
Four lives are drawn together by long-buried secrets of the past, and it is time for them all to grow up… before it’s too late.
I have no idea if Claire Calman is one of those authors who does her planning on post-its, but – if she does – they must have covered an entire wall for this one. This was such clever writing – three apparently unconnected stories, each tremendously engaging and featuring wonderfully drawn characters, with Conrad’s life story threaded through and drawing them together. The way in which they’re connected is very slowly revealed, with perfect pacing and wonderful writing: this book had me intrigued and 100% engaged from beginning to end, when I reluctantly set it aside and wondered “how did she do that?”, with not even the smallest thread left untied.
I’m really afraid of giving away too much of the story if I say too much – this is one you really need to discover for yourself, follow it through and feel the same moments of joy, shock and sadness that I did. But I can’t resist telling you about some of the characters.
I grew particularly fond of Eleanor – every reader will identify with her love for novels, her moments of escape from a marriage that no longer makes her happy and probably never did. Her husband is a monster, but entirely real and recognisable – there was more than one occasion when he filled me with uncontrollable rage.
And then there’s Andrew, so wonderfully awkward and so ill-equipped to be the adult he is – when he returns to live with his parents, you live his nightmare (and, if you ever stay with your parents, might just identify with some of his experiences). And it’s not just the main characters who are superbly drawn – his mother with her smothering love and vacuum cleaner and his long-suffering (and rather lovely) father are just two of the wonderful slightly expanded vignettes I thoroughly enjoyed. And then there’s Cecilia, now elderly, a constant embarrassment to her daughters with her graphic telling of stories from her wilder youth.
Conrad – whose story threads through it all – is Eleanor’s father, and we learn about his life and the difficult choices he’s sometimes had to make. There’s a deeply moving love story at its heart – beautifully told – that really moved me to tears. But the tears certainly aren’t the entirety of this story, wherever you might find them – there are times when its quite gloriously funny, the humour ranging from a titter of embarrassment to more than one full-on belly laugh, but with a touch of poignancy never too far away. The book’s themes are many – I liked the focus on being a parent, particularly the different takes on fatherhood, and that whole area of “adulting” and recognising what makes you happy.
Now, I haven’t said too much, have I? I see the publishers are calling it “a wonderful book club read”, and I couldn’t agree more – I think I’d really enjoy discussing this one. Who might it appeal to? It really did remind me of Rachel Joyce’s writing – and perhaps if you enjoyed Lisa Jewell’s books (The Third Wife, or The House We Grew Up In) before she turned to thrillers? But Claire Calman’s style is very much her own, and I’m already looking forward to seeing what she does next. I really loved this one – it might well be one of my books of the year.
About the author
Claire Calman is a writer and broadcaster known for her novels that combine wit and pathos, including the bestseller Love is a Four-Letter Word. She has appeared on BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour and Loose Ends.