This review of Nina Stibbe’s comic fiction, Reasons To Be Cheerful, appeared in the excellent Writers Review blog.
Writers Review is a weekly blog hosted by authors Adele Geras, Celia Rees and Linda Newbery. It gives reading recommendations by published writers and independent booksellers. In the six years it’s been in existence, it has built up an impressive guest list. A-listers contributing include Tracy Chevalier, Amanda Craig, Bridget Collins, Patrick Gale, Joanne Harris, Jill Paton Walsh, Jane Rogers, Diane Setterfield and Val McDermid.
And now me! I was honoured to be invited to add my two penn’orth.
I love all kinds of comedic writing – novels, plays, films, TV shows, stand-up routines – bring them on! However, one thing I can never get my head around is why comedy is so often dismissed as a lesser art. As anyone who’s ever tried writing it will confirm, humour is as hard – some would say harder – to pin down on the page as so-called serious stuff. I know. I’ve spent a lot of my time trying! That’s why, when comedy works, it is such a joy.
In Reasons To Be Cheerful, Nina Stibbe manages the extraordinary feat of writing a comic novel that makes you laugh, while reflecting quite deep thoughts about what it meant to grow up in the English provinces in the 1980s. I’m aware, as I write this, that all views on books are subjective, and those on humorous books particularly personal. What tickles my funny bone, may bring yours out in a nasty rash. You may not agree but, for me, Reasons To Be Cheerful is that rare thing, a comedy triumph.
I picked up Stibbe’s book up during the darkest days of the pandemic mainly, I confess, because of its title. In dire need of cheering up, I hoped this tale of eighteen-year-old Lizzie Vogel, aspiring writer and guerrilla dentist, as she navigates the tricky passage to adulthood, might hit the spot. I wasn’t disappointed. I laughed – once I read the description of trousers worn hoisted high in the “European way” I knew I was in for a treat – but I was also bowled over by its moments of insight.
Winner of both the 2019 Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse prize for Comic Fiction and the 2020 Comedy Women in Print (CWIP) prize, Reasons To Be Cheerful takes Lizzie, also the subject of two of Stibbe’s earlier volumes, Men at the Helm and Paradise Lodge, to the brink of womanhood.
The book teems with entertaining, richly observed characters and absurd situations, mainly centred around the goings-on in the dodgy dental surgery in Leicester. The characters are comic creations, true, but comic creations with depth and heart, whom you mostly care about and are invested in.
Lizzie herself is wonderfully bright and idiosyncratic, rivalling Adrian Mole for endearing naiveté and know-it-all pretension. Like him, she has ambitions to be a writer. I might be wrong, but I feel her character was inspired, at least in part, by the young Miss Stibbe, since they apparently share a love for words and an interest in teeth.
The story, told in Lizzie’s voice, chronicles her chaotic family, and a disparate gang of friends and work colleagues. These include: Adèle, her gloriously uninhibited mother, who believes, “a thoughtful visitor should aim to be fifteen minutes late … and slightly drunk”; Lizzie’s boss, Mr Wintergreen, a monstrous and incompetent dentist who employs Lizzie as his assistant and creepily insists she holds his cigarettes to his mouth for him as he smokes; and Andy, the boy who delivers the dental plates, and becomes Lizzie’s first boyfriend and the object of her sexual desire, though he prefers birding.
The less pleasant side of the 1980s is acutely and dryly observed, from the fashions – one character sports “apricot hair and matching lipstick” – to odious Mr Wintergreen’s racism and Lizzie’s sexist-but-hilarious list of Things Men Don’t Like Women Doing, which she fantasises about sending to a women’s magazine. It includes: “… having a dog, talking about sport, laughing loudly, spending money on fripperies, disagreeing with them, chatting on the phone, climbing trees, talking about dogs, mowing the lawn in flip-flops …”
Stibbe has the knack – shared by writers like David Nicholls and Kate Atkinson – of holding up a humorous mirror to everyday life without teetering over into caricature. She clearly loves her characters and wants you to root for them – apart from Mr Wintergreen. And every now and then she drops in a line or two that touches your heart and, mid-guffaw, you find you have something in your eye.
To be able to locate that bittersweet spot where absurdity meets truth, and a belly laugh catches in the throat is a gift given to few writers. Nina Stibbe, I believe, has it.
A lesser art, indeed!