Monday, September 24, 2007

Notting Hell

Lately it seems that just about the only topics of conversation amongst the 30/40something privileged parent set (which would be my set) are kids (corollary: schools), real estate, and infidelity. Notting Hell proves the point (though the point might need to be revised to feature the ULTRA-privileged, which is certainly not my set).

When I first saw notices about Notting Hell, I swore I wouldn't read it. I've given up mommy lit, right? Especially cute marketing mommy lit. But there it was on the shelf in the library, and before I knew it I was reading it, and then a day and a half later I'd finished it, and, you know, a few days later, I'm still thinking about it, which means...well, I'm not sure what it means, except that it's worth a blog post.

So Notting Hell is about super-rich yummy mummies who live on a communal garden in Notting Hill. They get all worked up about the super-rich Americans rebuilding their garage, they have affairs, and one of them tries to get pregnant. They also go out to lunch, do yoga, talk about feng shui, and enjoy (or pretend to enjoy) various annual communal garden events (member meeting, sports day, bonfire night). It's not the best-written book on the block, but, honestly, while I noticed the awkward sentences, I didn't really care--it's just not that kind of book. It also uses commodities as a shorthand for characterization, but, again, I didn't really care--it was just that kind of book. What kind of book? Trashy, eminently readable, all in all quite fun.

The chapters alternate between the first-person narratives of Clare (wealthy, uptight garden designer trying to get pregnant) and Mimi (poorest person on the garden, chaotic freelance writer and mother of three, including eleven- and six-year-old girls whom M became quite entranced by after I read her some funny passages--she kept asking me whether there was anything new about Mirabel and Posy). One thing that was strikingly skillful about the writing was that you got quite different senses of Clare and Mimi in each of the narratives, that is, from their self-presentations and the way they talk about each other, yet both those senses make sense--i.e. the book nicely shows the gaps between how we see ourselves and how others see us.

One thing that was strikingly odd about the book was that it went along in quite a jolly way with some angst but little heavy morality--and then all of a sudden, CRASH, Mimi is heavily punished, by her husband who has been the most easy-going of the bunch. Part of the goal, I assume is to make her husband, who doesn't care about the status obsessions of Notting Hill, a hero figure, that is, to turn farce into social critique. Except that her husband is aloof from the status obsessions of Notting Hill because he is old money (i.e. we're not talking Marxism). When Mimi and her family move to the country, all their problems are solved (i.e. the status-conscious materialism of Notting Hill was the problem? and punishment is really reward?) except that Mimi still describes everything she owns in name brands (satire? it's all just the same and punishment and reward are irrelevant concepts?). In other words, the book ends with some heavy narrative incoherence (or maybe it's coherence of a higher order?), but, you know, that's OK too.

As for those name brands and name drops, which are the novel's dominant motif: it was absolutely blatant how they function as a construct for reader identification. The book does include a glossary in the back (I wonder if the British edition has one too) which identifies all the shops and code words of yummy mummy Notting Hill life, but clearly the book's intended audience--or at least one intended audience--is those who can nod knowingly when Clare puts on her forget-what-they're-called boots or Mimi lunches at the E&O. And I, of course, totally fall for it, because I know what Agent Provacateur is! And I've been to that bakery! And aren't I lucky that even though I'm not a Notting Hill yummy mummy, I can read books about them! Ah, fiction...

So yes, though I'm sure it wasn't the author's intention, Notting Hell made me think about how fiction works, and I always like that.

[Sadly, I just had to give up on a new book by an author whose last novel I quite loved. In this one the main character is predictably unidimensional (i.e. the plot will obviously be generated by the need to make her multi-dimensional), and the bad use of pronouns and proper nouns is just too annoying to get past. The narration is third person limited (I think that's what it's called--I should know what it's called!--when it is third person but from the point of view and inside the thoughts of a single character), and the story totally focuses on the heroine, so it would be OK to use "she" most of the time, but instead the author keeps sticking in her name, including in the middle of quite short paragraphs that have begun with her name and continued to be about her. It just drove me crazy. I suppose you could say that this novel also made me think about fiction, and it certainly has a higher purpose than Notting Hell, with lots of big concepts like forgiveness and love, as well as politics, but...either I am once again proving myself a thoroughly superficial person in my fiction predilections, or Notting Hell is good at what it does, and this other book just isn't.]

[Edited to add: Oh dear, maybe I should have stuck with the abandoned book longer. But it's too late now, already returned it, and the review isn't compelling enough to make me want to take it out again...but I do feel bad now.]

1 comment:

Dawn said...

What is a "yummy mummy?"