Women’s Prize for Fiction 2021: Small Pleasures

There’s a lot to love in Clare Chambers’ absorbing Small Pleasures, set in late 1950s London – and a little that made me uncomfortable. Jean, the central character, is a journalist for the local paper and sole carer for her elderly mother. She apparently slots into a kind of literary type, but as I’ve never read any of the writers that Chambers has been compared to, like Barbara Pym and Anita Brookner, I found this to be quite a refreshing look at the unpaid and unappreciated care work done by ‘spinster’ women. Jean’s steady job is to write the ‘women’s sections’ of the paper, like ‘Pam’s Piece’ and domestic tips, but when she reads a letter from a woman who claims to have given birth ‘without the involvement of any man’, she is keen to pursue the story. This brings her into contact with Gretchen, now married to Howard, whose ‘miraculous’ daughter Margaret is now ten. Jean becomes increasingly drawn into this family, who offer her respite from her loneliness, but becoming too closely involved with their lives may turn out to have been a mistake.

As Small Pleasures unfolds, it becomes increasingly drawn away from the ‘virgin birth’ hook and more focused on the individual subjectivities of Jean, Howard and Gretchen. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, although I felt that the conclusion to the virgin birth thread was a bit deus ex machina, as if Chambers wanted to wrap it up quickly before getting onto the actual ending of the novel. The joy of this book lies partly in its quietness, its willingness to give time to characters that are often overlooked in fiction, with Jean musing extensively on her middle-aged dowdiness and how people assume that she no longer feels anything much. There’s a sensible kindness about interpersonal relationships throughout much of this novel, with neighbours offering help as well as judgment, and colleagues sympathy as well as pity. Even Jean’s querulous mother is allowed to have some redeeming qualities. However, this makes the moments when Chambers seems to run short on empathy even more telling. [Spoilers from now on, scroll to the bottom of the post to skip]

About halfway through Small Pleasures, we find out that Gretchen was in love with another woman, Martha, during the period she spent at a sanatorium as a teenager, when she also conceived Margaret. Martha was devastated because she believed Gretchen willingly slept with a man, and cut off contact with her. Gretchen explains that she was motivated to prove that Margaret was an immaculate conception so that Martha would trust her again. Having re-established contact with Martha via Jean, Gretchen leaves Howard. Howard tells Jean that he and Gretchen stopped having sex long ago, and he and Jean embark upon an affair. This, for me, was where Small Pleasures began to feel a little uncomfortable. The text focuses on Howard’s pain, emphasising that he wasn’t able to have ‘a full marriage’ with Gretchen and how important it is for him to have found true sexual love with Jean. We’re also invited to reflect on how important this is for Jean after years of self-denial. However, perhaps inadvertently, this minimises Gretchen’s (and Martha’s) suffering; it may be unpleasant to have to live a life of involuntary celibacy, but it’s another thing altogether to have the very fact that you experience desire demonised and suppressed.

I’ve noticed that when somebody writes in to a forum or problem page to say that their spouse has come out as gay or lesbian and has left them, this is often framed as deliberate deceit. While there may be some sympathy for the spouse, it’s always assumed that they ‘always knew’ they were homosexual and so always knew that they could never be a ‘proper’ husband or wife. Chambers very much plays into this kind of narrative, suggesting that Gretchen should have been ‘honest’ with Howard. However, being a lesbian in 1950s Britain was not just an identity that couldn’t be publicly claimed; it was an identity that barely existed. As Diana Chapman said, remembering her adolescence in the early 1950s, ‘Yes, I thought I was a lesbian. But… every book on psychology I ever read… told me that it was immature and I should… reconcile myself to my femininity and find myself a good man and have children.’ If your sexual desires have been validated all of your life, it might be hard to understand how queer people can both ‘know and not know’ what they really want, but this is still real for queer people – and perhaps especially queer women – today, let alone almost seventy years ago. The very fact that Gretchen waited so long to prove her story and seek out Martha suggested to me that, even if she’d once admitted her feelings for Martha to herself, she’d tried to bury them again after marrying Howard. I understand that we get all of this through Jean, who is not primed to be sympathetic to Gretchen; but I felt that Chambers could have done a lot more work, if she had been so inclined, to indicate that our sympathies should be more complicated.

I’m not aiming to read all sixteen books on the Women’s Prize longlist this year, but I’ve selected seven titles that I do want to read. This is number six. I’ve already read The Vanishing Half, Transcendent KingdomPiranesi, Consent and Exciting Times.

23 thoughts on “Women’s Prize for Fiction 2021: Small Pleasures

  1. My friend Claire read this and was furious about it – she felt manipulated, guessed the plot, and hated knowing the big revelation at the start! She was quite comically cross about it, actually! I’m not sure she’d read Pym et al., too – funnily enough I have, but that doesn’t make me want to read that. Your assessment of the themes in your spoiler bit saves me even more from reading this (thank you – I just won literally a million NetGalley books I idly clicked on over the weekend …).

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    • Oh dear! I can’t say I guessed the plot as such, but then I didn’t feel that the resolution was really a big revelation – the virgin birth story definitely seemed to fizzle out. It was as if Chambers got more interested in the other strand of the plot. Hope you enjoy your NetGalley reads!

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  2. I’ve left part of your post unread as I’m awaiting a copy from the library, but I’ll pop back after I’ve read it. I didn’t care for the one Brookner novel I tried, but I’ve enjoyed Pym before, and I’m attracted by the premise, which reminds me of Dear Mrs Bird and A Single Thread.

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    • It’s more like A Single Thread than Dear Mrs Bird, but A Single Thread is a lot better, IMO. The virgin birth thread reminded me of Emma Donoghue’s The Wonder (although that book handles its medical mystery more adeptly). I think you might enjoy this one, though.

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  3. Very, very valid criticism, I think. (The part that made me most uncomfortable was the revelation of the ‘virgin birth’, which I felt—trying to avoid spoilers here—glossed over trauma in an unhelpful manner.) I do love the focus on Jean’s blossoming, though, and on the way her relationship with her mother is drawn: so brutally clear on the little details of domestic tyranny and manipulation by the elderly, but with such an understanding of why that can happen, as someone tries to exert power to disguise their ever-shrinking sphere of control. I don’t particularly like Brookner and have felt more admiration than love for Pym, and while I understand the comparisons (and have made them myself), I think Chambers manages to be more emotionally accessible whilst writing about similar milieux and themes.

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    • I was going to mention the problems with the resolution of the virgin birth plot, but the post had got a bit long by that point! I agree, and I think it’s another example of the novel failing to get outside Jean’s subjectivity. Jean makes a decision that probably makes sense given her cultural context, but it’s presented to us straight; there’s not enough that gives us space to consider the impact on Gretchen.

      But having said all that, I also very much agree with your summary of the strengths of the novel. I just wish Chambers had made it clearer that Jean’s lens is distorting and not the be all and end all.


      • (Incidentally, this is what I loved so much about The Madonna of the Mountains: the absolute dedication to its protagonist’s subjectivity without for a second allowing us to forget that the subjectivity was there. It’s a tough balancing act with historical fiction, for sure.)

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  4. I loved reading your thoughts on this one and getting a fresh perspective with some solid positives- I’ve just finished this one as well and have quite a list of complaints! Many match up with your reservations, but on the whole this was a miss for me and I’m afraid my upcoming review will be more of a rant. I really strongly disliked a few things in particular, like Jean’s decision not to tell Gretchen what had happened, and her absolute conviction that Gretchen’s heterosexual marriage was the correct path for her, telling her to her face that she was a fool for trying to resume the f/f relationship that might’ve truly made her happy. But I also disliked the handling of the investigation, the inclusion of the train incident at all, and Jean’s unchallenged 50s views throughout, so I don’t think it ever stood a chance for me. Nevertheless, it was a nice easy read when I needed one, so not a total loss, and I’m happy to see you got on with it a bit better than I did.

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    • SPOILERS FOLLOW. I’m really excited to read your rant about this novel, because the more I sit with it, the more disturbing I find it. I think its strengths feed seamlessly into its weaknesses. Jean is such a well-realised and sympathetic character, and her struggle with her caring responsibilities so under-explored in contemporary fiction, that I was happy to go with her most of the way. But by the end of the novel she’s started to become a kind of martyr figure, policing Gretchen’s performance of motherhood and taking it upon herself to do what she believes is the right thing for Margaret – even if this means hiding Gretchen’s abuse from her.

      As I said to Elle above, I believe this makes sense in the context of the time, but as you say, Jean’s views do go unchallenged – and they could easily be challenged if we had more from Gretchen (and indeed Martha). It’s a shame because I think it would have been brilliant if we were forced to snap out of our complicity with Jean at a certain point in the novel, but I don’t think Chambers pulled that off.

      Jean convincing Gretchen to stay in her marriage – my sense was that this was more about her concerns for Margaret than because she felt Gretchen had to stay married above all else. But this doesn’t actually make her actions any better as it’s mixed in with a lot of judginess of Martha and her lifestyle and how it isn’t ‘suitable’ for a child. (I’d love to know if Chambers intended Jean to be an unreliable narrator re. Martha – it kind of comes off that way!)

      The train crash – haha I know lots of readers have hated this, but I was actually very glad this was the ending, otherwise I think Jean and Howard living happily ever after might have tipped me over the edge! At least his death injects some uncertainty about who is getting what they ‘deserve’.

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      • “It’s strengths feed seamlessly into its weaknesses” is SPOT ON. At first I was very drawn in by how authentically 50s the novel felt, from Jean being a sort of social outcast due to her spinsterhood and working thanklessly to care for her mother and keep up appearances, right down to word choice (loved finding ‘obstreperous’ in there, it felt so much like a 50s adjective). But as the story went on I felt less and less like this was a story we needed beyond the year 1957 itself, if it wasn’t going to reflect on the ingrained toxicity or explore more directly how some of the misplaced ideals of the era were directly responsible for so much of these characters’ misery. I completely agree that a multi-perspective narration with Gretchen and/or Martha could have helped balance Jean and put the setting in clearer perspective even without direct “then vs. now” commentary. That would likely have improved the read for me.

        I also agree that Jean comes off as unreliable regarding Martha! She went from finding her fascinating at their first meeting to thinking her irresponsible, mean, and slovenly once her connection with Gretchen is revealed. I also agree that Margaret seemed to be the focus in Jean’s dedication to keeping Gretchen in her marriage, but this too felt like it needed some work so as not to come across as “only heterosexual marriages are good environments for raising children.” Which of course was the social expectation in the 50s, but we have progressed! I needed the novel to show that a bit more, personally.

        And as for the train- I think you’re right about it saving Jean and Howard from skipping off into the sunset in an unsatisfactory ending, and I’m actually kind of fascinated by transportation disasters so I liked the idea in theory. It just felt so disconnected from the rest of the book! Of course it was a sudden event so I’m not entirely sure how it could have been woven in better, but it reminded me of an episode of The Crown that revolves around a period of dangerous smog- that episode is so tense and atmospheric and when someone important to the story eventually dies it is both sudden and inevitable, and I wanted to feel that way about this train disaster. Instead, it required an afterword with an explanation longer than the actual coverage of the event in the novel, and left me confused about the purpose of the book.

        Anyway, you’ll hardly even need to read my review at this point, haha. But so few people I know have read this one, and there’s such fodder for discussion!

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        • Completely agree! I don’t think we even needed multi-perspective narration, though – Jean and Gretchen talk a couple of times and Gretchen could have pushed back more. It wouldn’t take much to signal to the reader that Jean is unreliable if Chambers had intended her to be – though having read an interview with her here where she talks about ‘celebrating the suburban’, I’m not sure she did intend that https://www.writing.ie/interviews/small-pleasures-by-clare-chambers/

          I’ve just given up on the first series of The Crown because it’s not clicking with me, but I loved the smog episode! I agree, that was a much better handling of a sudden death. I’m not 100% sure why Chambers was so keen to link these two historical events.

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          • Ah, that’s a good point, and I agree that a bit of extended dialogue between the three women could just as easily have accomplished some deeper characterization of Jean. Also, I hadn’t seen that interview yet so thanks for the link- I am reading it the same way as far as Chambers’ intent with Jean as a sort of unsung hero rather than a character meant to invite any critique. So sad, since it seems that so much could’ve been done if Jean’s flaws had been more openly acknowledged.

            The smog episode is great! I’m glad you liked that one too. It left such an impression for me that I couldn’t help comparing the end of this book. Sorry to hear you weren’t having better luck with the other Crown episodes, but as someone who binged the series in a love-to-hate-it kind of way I can definitely understand that choice!

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            • I was a bit frustrated with the first series of the Crown. I found the political/social history really engaging (e.g. in the smog episode) but got so bored with the monarchy plots! I wondered if the balance shifted in later seasons?

              Glad you read that interview the same way I did, ha.

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              • To be honest I watched the whole show in one long string so I’m not the best person to compare seasons, but I thought they were fairly consistent. The political/social bits were definitely more interesting for me as well (though I did like the addition of Princess Diana into the mix of the monarchy), and much like the smog episode the show tended to be a few strong favorites for me here and there with the rest feeling like filler. I think if you struggled with the first season the show probably wouldn’t improve for you on the whole, but there are some great individual episodes if specific events interest you more than the repetitive monarchy dramas! I’d probably rank Aberfan, Fagan, and Tywysog Cymru among my top picks for episodes, along with Act of God (the smog).
                -No pressure if you decide not to return to the show, of course!

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