It’s my pleasure today to be helping launch the blog tour for A Second-Hand Husband, the latest book from the wonderful Claire Calman, and to share my publication day review: published today (16th June) 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).
I’ve been really looking forward to this one – it was so wonderful to rediscover Claire’s writing with Growing Up for Beginners last year (you’ll find my review here – this was one of my Books of the Year). It’s now 21 years since I read Love Is A Four Letter Word, and I see that Boldwood have repackaged and republished all Claire’s earlier books – so if you haven’t been reading for quite as long as I have, why not treat yourself and catch up a little? But this one’s brand new, and I could see it might be one for me as soon as I read the blurb – let’s take a closer look…
Natalie and Carl are newlyweds, but the honeymoon period is over already.
Carl has just announced he has bought their first home at auction without telling Natalie where it is, never mind showing her a picture of it.
Natalie is horrified to discover that the dream home is in Little Wyford, mere minutes away from Carl’s ex-wife Antonia. And to make matters worse, Antonia’s palatial country mansion has a fully-functioning roof (and a heated swimming pool!), unlike the ramshackle cottage Carl has bought for them…
Antonia is Little Wyford’s Queen Bee, mistress of the book club, organiser of the Christmas Fair and leader of the ladies-who-lunch. No matter how hard she tries, Natalie just doesn’t fit in, and when Antonia insists on referring to Carl as ‘Our Husband’, Natalie’s dreams of happily-ever-after take another nose dive.
Second-hand furniture has much to recommend it, especially when doing up a country cottage, second-hand clothes can be ever-so chic, but second-hand husbands are proving to be a very bad idea indeed…
Can Natalie ever escape the label of Wife Number Two or is she destined to share her husband forever?
Hilariously funny, wickedly witty, but with a heart of gold and a warmth and wisdom that are all its own, A Second-Hand Husband is Claire Calman’s tour de force.
When I read Growing Up for Beginners, I was incredibly impressed by the way the author wove together three apparently disconnected stories, tangling the threads but not leaving a single loose end dangling. This book was entirely different, and did come as something of a surprise – a smaller cast of characters, a simpler story, a more conventional timeline, but still with that rather special touch with characterisation that I so enjoyed in the earlier book.
The book’s main character is Natalie – newly married to Carl, and can’t believe her luck. She has severe self-esteem issues, struggles with decision-making, feels awkward and out of place in social situations. But she really loves Carl, and feels for him that they live so far away from the two children of his previous marriage, and they’re thinking about moving closer. It’s something of a surprise though when he calls to tell her that he’s bought a house in an auction – one she’s never even seen – much closer to his former family. In fact, she finds it’s not only closer, it’s in the same village, only walking distance away: the house itself (to put it mildly) is something of a disappointment too, lacking a roof, needing an enormous amount of work to make it their new home, but it does have the pond in the garden that she’d always had on her “must have” list.
Living in such close proximity to Carl’s first wife proves to be an even bigger issue than she thought it might be – Antonia, now remarried, is always groomed to perfection, has a wonderful house complete with manicured garden and swimming pool, is the perfect hostess when inviting round her equally stunning friends and acolytes, and Natalie suspects there may be more between her and Carl that just their shared parenting. Everywhere Natalie goes, Antonia is there – popping up from behind the fruit and veg carrying her designer wicker basket, snaffling the last loaves of sourdough at the bakery, jumping queues with impunity while making loud proclamations about her frantically busy life. And, particularly loudly, she insists on calling her “Natty”, forbidden to anyone other than her closest family – and that’s when she’s not (equally loudly) referring to her as “Wife Number Two”, or to Carl as “our husband”. And then there are her children – particularly teenage Saskia, who shares her mother’s propensity for the put-down line, making Natalie feel even more unwelcome and out of place than she already does.
There are a couple of other storylines that emerge – the surprising reappearance of Natalie’s father, and the fractured relationship Carl has with his brother – but the story’s main thrust is around the relationship with Antonia and the family, as Natalie sets about making her home at Rose Cottage with Carl largely absent, while trying to decide whether her marriage really is what she wanted it to be and whether she can ever hope to be good enough.
It’s largely about the character progression – Natalie is so very downtrodden and lacking in confidence, her awkwardness really painful to witness, and you yearn for her to stamp her foot and assert herself, to stop being the total doormat she sometimes seems to be. But she certainly does have her moments of joy – supervising the work on the cottage while adding her own special touches (even picking up a sledgehammer – which must have been so satisfying – when life becomes particularly fraught), bravely swimming in Antonia’s swimming pool in her unfashionable costume, goggles and cap, or stripping off to swim in the garden pond.
It’s a difficult thing to build sympathy for a character who’s so desperately downtrodden but takes so long to do anything about it – and I must admit that I did sometimes find it a bit much, wanting to step in on her behalf (as her sister does, quite magnificently on one occasion), make Carl realise the misery he’s inflicted, tell Antonia what I thought of her and put her in her place. So does Natalie find the bravery to make a stand? That’s for you to find out when you read the book – and really the essence of the story.
The humour throughout is excellent, witty and perfectly judged – although sometimes touched with a sense of acute embarrassment for some of Natalie’s experiences. The sheer joy of the book is in the characterisation, particularly the magnificent Antonia, whose increasing acts of thinly-veiled hostility – whatever may inspire them – make you gasp in horror. There’s a particularly strong sense of place too – the whole village of Little Wyford is perfectly drawn, with Rose Cottage becoming a home surrounded by the beauty of nature in contrast to Antonia’s stark designer house.
I will admit though that I just couldn’t love Natalie as much as I really wanted to: although I really felt for her, and wanted her to realise how much she had to offer, there were times when I just wanted to shake her. And I never entirely understood Carl’s behaviour – his self-centredness and lack of engagement often seemed rather at odds with his professions of love for his new wife.
It was a read I really enjoyed, but I do think I might have preferred just a little more complexity – the subsidiary storylines did peter out a little, and I’m not sure that Natalie’s progression was quite enough to make me entirely love it, although I did very happily read it from cover to cover in a single sitting. But I’m only one reader, and we all look for different things in the books we love – I very much like Claire Calman’s writing, and many might just prefer this rather more linear storytelling. So perhaps not one of my personal books of the year this time round, but I’ll still be very much looking forward to seeing what she does next.
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. Her first book for Boldwood, Growing Up for Beginners, was published in June 2020.