*I was gifted this book in return for my honest review*
The Mumsnet Book Club has been taking me on what feels like an emotional rollercoaster ride and The Awkward Age by Francesca Segal is no exception. This is the second novel from the Costa prize-winning author. I finished this novel a few days ago but still it’s lingering on in my thoughts. This is a book where its prose is cleverly controlled, it’s almost musical, yet the emotions of the main characters often seem wildly out of control.
The Awkward Age
Down a leafy London street, behind a very pretty Victorian door, are two families living as one. Julia Alden, mother to Gwen has fallen in love with James Fuller, a very handsome doctor. In fact, his looks seem to be very important to Julia as the book opens with her describing him as being
“… broad-chested, solid, and beautiful. At fifty-five he was still mostly blonde. He was tall, and square in the only way that Americans can be square – as if raised, corn-fed and free range, on strong sunshine and red meat and the earnest and deliberate pursuit of happiness”
Yet, it is this earnest pursuit of happiness that makes them seem oblivious to the children’s needs, Julia’s daughter, Gwen and James’s son, Nathan. Prior to Julia and James meeting, Julia and Gwen had spent 5 years living alone after the death of Julia’s husband and Gwen’s father. Their relationship for those years revolved around Gwen’s needs and wants. I could have sympathy for Julia but I can’t help but feel that she encouraged this claustrophobic relationship and therefore, she needs to deal with the fallout.
For 16 year-old Gwen, the introduction of James, another man, in her father’s house, is not welcome and we watch as resentment festers and broods before Gwen takes it upon herself to light the fuse and throw in a very literal ticking time bomb. I found myself flipping in sympathy for the children through to the adults. At the start of the novel I felt sorry for Gwen who I did believe had been wronged and I did find myself questioning how I would be acting in Julia’s shoes as Gwen’s mother. For the first half of the book I felt that the parents were being self-absorbed but then in the second half of the book I found myself rooting for the parents.
The one consistent feeling is that reading this book will make you feel like you are in the middle of some sort of emotional battleground. There are times when the venom drips off the page. With every chapter I became increasingly frustrated with the different characters and their apparent inability to communicate with each other because what does become very apparent is that Julia and James are not being honest with each other. The relationship and whether it will or will it not survive is not down to the children, as we are first led to believe, it is in fact looking doomed because James and Julia fail to communicate. When things get really tough they tip-toe around each other and say what they think the other wants to hear. If the relationship is doomed then it is of their own making, not the children’s.
We soon learn that Julia can’t actually stand Nathan, James’s 17 year-old son. She sees him as self-entitled. James can’t stand Gwen, seeing her as whiny and needy. They might be acting as a family but it becomes clear that you can’t force them to behave as a family and the adults are rather clumsy and inept in the fact that they don’t recognise this. I guess it’s that very English middle-class belief that everything will work out. Teenage Gwen seems more on the ball with her observations, noticing that James always leaves the door open when he speaks to her in a bedroom as if he is
“adopting modes of monkish propriety that he had no doubt learned from a book of pop psychology. How Not to Make Your Stepdaughter Think You’re a Perv, Volume I.”
Selfish And Oblivious?
Julia and James insistence on throwing this family together with little thought does feel ill-considered and selfish. Their love for each other has apparently made them oblivious to their children’s needs. I did find myself asking why they couldn’t have just waited for a couple of years when the children would have been off to university. But, then in the second half of the book my feelings changed and I desperately wanted the parent’s relationship to succeed and I found myself getting angry at the actions of the children and how they might be jeopardising their parent’s happiness. I also saw another side of Gwen and depending on what page I was reading I would veer from seeing her as a fragile child who desperately needed her mother, to a scheming and manipulative girl who would do anything to ensure that she was always number 1.
I did feel for Julia when she thought that the teenage children were now getting on. However, her dismay when she realises what is really going on with the teenagers is heartbreaking. This is a book that will leave you feeling bruised, raw and vulnerable. Days after putting this book down and I am still catching myself pondering the story. This book will place you in the middle of the battlefield and challenge you to take sides. You know that this is not going to be a book with a simple happy ending. When it comes to a battlefield there will always be victims.
I loved this novel but again I found myself not really liking the male characters. Perhaps this says something about me because I am finding that with all the books I am reading at the moment. I felt that Nathan, the son, was selfish, vain and very immature. As for his father, I felt that he was disloyal towards Julia and very weak at times. However, I have to also admit that I was very frustrated with Julia and wanted to tell her to stand up for herself and to stand her ground.
Love Can Hurt Us
Essentially this is a book about love and the pain it can bring. A reminder that love and raising children isn’t all joyous, it’s never straightforward. It can be explosive and damaging too. The prose is perfectly constructed and written and it takes you on a rollercoaster of emotions, just be warned that there will be times you will be screaming to get off as you want to escape the clashing and clanging of egos. However, you will come back to this novel because you are rooting for this family and its characters. You will desperately want everyone to get their happy ending but that’s not life, is it?
The Awkward Age by Francesca Segal is available from Amazon.co.uk
Disclaimer – please be aware that I was gifted this novel as I am working with the Mumsnet Book Club. However, all words, opinions and images are my own.