December Book Club: Small Pleasures
Welcome to our December choice for the Well Read Company Book Club!
Clare Chamber’s Small Pleasures takes place in 1957 in the suburbs of South East London, and focuses on Jean Swinney, a reporter for a small local newspaper. When she comes across the opportunity to follow the story of a supposed virgin birth she jumps at the chance. To her, it is an intriguing but slightly ridiculous story to take her out of her monotonous life of house duties and looking after her elderly mother. However, what she doesn’t expect is to be pulled into the lives of the people telling her this incredible story, and even finding love in the most unexpected place. Chamber’s quiet masterpiece focuses on questions of credibility, the intricacies of family life in a time when roles were so rigidly set, and the importance of personal growth.
Small Pleasures’s title really sums up the magic of this book: I adored the tiny details of 1950s life. Chambers does an excellent job of transporting us back to a time when the grim terror of war was just starting to wear off but typical British stoicism was still in full-force. Jean has long since given up on finding fulfillment in her life, as an unmarried forty year old woman who struggles to keep her patience with her mother’s endless requests. For her, the joys in life are small and simple: ‘the first cigarette of the day; a glass of sherry before Sunday lunch; a bar of chocolate parcelled out to last a week; a newly published library book, still pristine and untouched by other hands…’. Her burgeoning love affair throughout the story is also simple, it isn’t a romance that screams from the rooftops but instead is tender and kind, and therefore infinitely more realistic. Chambers proves that the subject matter doesn’t have to be particularly dramatic or dangerous for a book to be utterly compelling.
The reader is kept guessing as to whether the supposed virgin birth is truly (an admittedly improbable) miracle or not till the very end. There is an interesting glimpse into 1950s medicine, as the London doctors endeavor to help Jean discover whether such an event is truly possible. Such a whimsical and surprising backdrop to the otherwise domestic-based tale is what makes it so enjoyable. The contrast between the mundanity of female life in 1950s England and the thrill of trying to discover the truth behind an apparent divine phenomenon is what made the book stick in my mind for a long time after reading it. Chambers observes this dichotomy with a wry humour, illuminating how the complexities of human relationships are after all very simple: motivated by desire and duty.
Although Chambers has been published before, it is this offering that has catapulted her into the bestseller charts and becoming a recognised name. I can’t help but think of the success Richard Osman has had because of his cosy, nostalgic and also quintessentially British settings. The logic behind this winning formula seems simple: in times of seemingly never-ending global turmoil and panic, this type of literature returns us to a simpler, gentler world whilst still displaying love and friendship in all their nuances.
We loved reading this novel this month and are so excited to discuss it with you - please tell us what you thought via social media or by commenting on this post!