Books you need to read this February

James Walton

A debut novel that’ll make you laugh and cry, a cerebral political thriller set in Ukraine, and stories of women breaking boundaries are our top literary picks this month

Saving Missy by Beth Morrey
(HarperCollins, £12.99)

There’s much excitement in the book world about this debut novel—and it’s not hard to see why. Missy, the highly appealing narrator, is a 78-year-old north Londoner rattling around alone what was once the family home and losing confidence that she’s anything but an old biddy. But then she meets two extraordinarily nice local women, who set about rescuing her from her loneliness. As they do, the return of Missy’s self-esteem and capacity for fun are very touchingly done. And so, as she looks back on her past, is her increasing awareness of what’s really mattered in her life.

I do, though, have one gripe. These days all writers at the more commercial end of the spectrum seem obliged by law—or at least their publishers—to serve up a big closing twist. This Beth Morrey duly does, the trouble being that her twist feels not just unnecessary, but something of a cheat. Luckily (in a way), it’s so strangely out of place that the book is easily strong enough to survive it. Nonetheless, the often-forgotten fact remains: better no twist at all than a dodgy one.

 

Independence Square by A D Miller
(Harvill Secker, £14.99)

A D Miller is a former foreign correspondent who draws on his insider knowledge to write intelligent political thrillers in the tradition of John le Carré. His new one opens in Ukraine in 2004, with the Orange Revolution poised to overthrow the Russian-backed president. (Incidentally, don’t worry if you’re a little rusty on your 21st-century Ukrainian history—one of the pleasures the book offers is the chance to effortlessly find out about it.) In those days, main character Simon Davey was a well-regarded British diplomat trying to bring about a just and peaceful outcome. But in alternating chapters we also see him years later, jobless and wifeless back in London, after someone told the press he’d had an affair with a female protestor. So who betrayed him and why?

Simon’s quest for answers proves pretty complicated for both him and us. What is clear, though, is that he wasn’t the only one betrayed. Despite the protestors’ idealism, their hopes for a better country were cynically dashed by people who simply had too much to lose.

Independence Square is, then, quite a bleak book—but I’m afraid it also feels like an authentic guide to how the world works.

 

RD's recommended read

Ladies Can’t Climb Ladders: The Pioneering Adventures of the First Professional Women by Jane Robinson (Doubleday at £20)

On the face of it, the time immediately after the First World War should have seen an instant transformation in the lives of British women. In 1918, many were allowed to vote for the first time. The following year Parliament passed the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act, which in theory opened up professions such as law, architecture, medicine and academia to women as never before.

But, as Jane Robinson shows in this endlessly revealing new book, things weren’t ever going to be that straightforward. For a start, there were the limitations of the Act itself: women were still expected to stop work when they got married, for instance, and several institutions simply refused to play ball. (Cambridge University didn’t award degrees to female graduates until 1948.) And of course, there was stout resistance from the less reconstructed members of society (see sidebar)—which, as the ever fair-minded Robinson acknowledges, included many women. Even so, a generation of female pioneers emerged, and Robinson traces their triumphs and difficulties in a book that’s by turns rueful, indignant, grateful and funny—but always packed with terrific stories of remarkable lives. Some of the women’s achievements were particularly spectacular: from designing the Stratford’s Royal Shakespeare Theatre to bringing electricity to rural Devon. Others were quieter, but just as important for normalising the idea of professional career women.

In one chapter, Robinson also discovers how the pioneers spent what was for most of them their first ever pay cheques, with ideas supplied by the new boom in women’s magazines, led by Good Housekeeping which launched in 1922—although, as you’ll see, not all these publications were what we’d now call wholly on-message…

 

“The opening editorial set the tone of Good Housekeeping. ‘Any keen observer of the times cannot have failed to notice that we are on the threshold of a great feminine awakening,’ it ran. The days of dullness and drudgery in the home were over: coming up were articles on careers for women, and on trends in electrical engineering, domestic architecture, fashion, cookery and interior decor.

Publications like Good Housekeeping were soon part of professional life for career women, offering opportunities to boost personal income and profile through writing—as well as the pleasure of reading. Publishers and advertisers alike were quick to recognise a ready market. From the mid-1920s, more titles emerged for the educated reader in charge of her own purse-strings. Britannia and Eve was founded in 1929 as ‘a Monthly Journal for Men and Women’. The first number, running to over 200 pages, is loaded with advertisements—some in colour—for cigarettes, ‘shadow-garments’ (lingerie), hats, insurance policies, Ryvita, champagne, fancy kitchenware, cars and cosmetics (startlingly including ‘radio-active hair restorer’): everything a modern woman could need. And nothing much for men; in fact, it didn’t take long for Britannia and Eve to be marketed exclusively at women.

The magazine is a strange mixture; features about sex and the single girl, financial independence and the advantages of a good divorce sit side by side with recipes for boiled lettuce with breadcrumbs and Bismarck herrings. Perhaps the publishers hoped there’d be something for everyone—and perhaps they were right: Britannia and Eve ran until 1957.

Miss Modern is aimed at a younger readership, with a film supplement and advice on dealing with blackheads, disappointing teeth or flabbiness. This magazine seems obsessed by the concept of sex-appeal. Applying for a job is not about building an impressive CV; it is about how to arrange your limbs during the interview (assuming the interviewer will be male); how much make-up to wear; how to move in and out of the room effectively. ‘Pity the Pretty Girl in Business’ is a jauntily-illustrated feature on using ‘sex-weapons’ in the ‘battle of a career’:

Should you use your good looks in order to help your career, or shouldn’t you? Is it wrong to bring sex into business or isn’t it? What ought to be your attitude to your chief if he shows signs of admiring you (a) if he’s married and (b) if he isn’t? . . . In my opinion you would be foolish not to use your good looks discreetly in order to help your career. They are a fortunate accident of birth and part of your capital. If you had been born with £500 a year no-one would expect you not to use it, and good looks may be worth more than £500 a year. Besides, if you want to carve a career, some day you must graduate beyond secretarial work to something more important, and then you may have to compete with men, and men have better brains than women.”

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