Stella, a troubled but immensely innocent girl, gets an unpaid internship in a repertory theatre. She falls in love with the director, Meredith though the reader can see he is gay and therefore unavailable; most of the other men want to shag Stella. As the season progresses from play to pantomime (Peter Pan) Stella seems to prove a catalyst for disaster, even death. She loses her virginity but never her innocence (there is a hilarious scene in a cinema with a newspaper reporter in which he gets her to masturbate him and she hasn't a clue what bis going on). Throughout, Stella tells the truth, not understanding that what she is saying may have a destructive effect on the hearer.
One of the brilliant things about Bainbridge is that, in the context of a straightforward narrative, she can add layers of meaning. For example:
- “As for Cleopatra, she was an uneducated girl and deluded if she thought Caesar gave a pig's bonnet for her. It was Anthony whom she had enslaved, never Caesar. To Caesar all women were the same. There was always another one around the next pyramid.” (C 6) This is a wonderful metaphor for what is going on with Stella herself.
- “A woman came up with a red balloon and asked him to autograph it, and he took out a fountain pen and commenced a squeaky signature. The balloon burst as he scrawled the last letter. The woman said it didn't matter. They both hunted through the debris on the floor to find that shriveled scrap bearing his name.” (C 10)
Bainbridge is also an expert at saying things which we know are important but whose importance we can't realise until later. For example, every so often she telephones her mother; these conversations always end with “Mother said the usual things.” It is not until the very end that we understand what those things are.I suppose this is a type of foreshadowing, although it is more obtrusive than that. It creates questions in the reader's mind - 'what's this all about?' - which make one want to read on further. It is a type of hook except it doesn't only happen at the start of the book. It reminded me a little of the way that Ford Madox Ford in The Good Soldier used unreliable narration to keep one guessing.
- “There were purple weeds blowing through the stonework of the smashed tower hanging in giddy steps beneath the sky. Uncle Vernon called it an eyesore ... She’d argued that the church was a monument, and that the shattered tower was a ladder climbing from the past to the future.” (C 2)
- “The flower-seller who kept a stall in the mouth of the granite arch leading to the subterranean tunnel into the street was bent over, dunking tulips in a galvanized bucket. Passing beneath the arch the children felt the slope beneath them and tumbled into a trot, the echoes of their stamping feet sending the pigeons plummeting from their perches. When the birds spewed out of the darkness the flower-seller flapped her great shawl like a matador to ward them off; they broke formation, circling the massive clock stopped at ten to ten, floundering upwards towards the whirling sky framed in the shards of glass set in the iron ribs of the shattered roof.” (C 4) Not a word out of place.
- “They looked both sly and exhilarated, as though they were off to some party that would end in tears.” (C 5)
This book has many links to the J M Barrie play Peter Pan:
- The title is taken from a line spoken by Peter when, trapped on a rock with the tide rising and unable to fly he speculates that "death will be an awfully big adventure." There are several deaths in the book.
- The production of Peter Pan takes up the action for the second half of the book
- There are a number of occasions when working in a theatre is contrasted with working in a bank. Mr Darling in the Peter Pan stories was a bank clerk.
- On a metaphorical level, Peter Pan is about a boy who refuses to grow up and Stella, the lead character, is a girl who preserves naive innocence despite the many piratical and reptilian men around her.
- “He hadn't forgotten her histrionics following the removal of the half-basin on the landing. She had accused him of mutilating her past, of ripping out her memories. He’d had to bite on his tongue to stop himself from blurting out that in her case this was all to the good. There were worse things than the disappearance of basins. It had brought home to him how unreliable history was, in that the story, by definition, was always one-sided.” (C 1)
- “She had combed her hair so often in anticipation she imagined it had grown thinner.” (C 3)
- “ A Soprano with legs that wouldn't have disgraced a piano stool.” (C 3)
- “St Ives and a woman he swore was his Auntie from Cardiff were discovered in matching pyjamas, he in the top and she in the bottoms.” (C 3)
- “You don't mention fat for nothing.” (C 3)
- “It was astonishing to Stella how fondly men remembered their darkest hours.” (C 3)
- “Penetration, from what she had gathered from library books, was inescapably painful unless one had played a lot of tennis or ridden stallions, and she hadn't done either.” (C 3)
- “She was the sort of girl who, if there had been a meadow handy, would have been out there in a flash picking cowslips.” (C 4)
- “I don't mind confessing that after a few honeymoon months we stalled more times then we took off.” (C 6)
- “She pondered on the differences in men's and women's clothing. Trousers, she now realised, were so designed not because their wearers had funny legs but because men were constantly worried that an essential part of them might have gone missing. They wanted instant access, just to make sure things were in place. What was more puzzling was why they needed everyone else to check as well.” (C 6)
- “The reporter ... shoved a handkerchief at her. She wondered whether she had been sniffing; it was true she had the beginnings of a cold. Suddenly he let out a huge sigh, as though the air was being forced out of him. He seemed to grow smaller; certainly his thingummyjig shrunk. almost at once he fell into a doze. She was left holding a jelly baby of shrivelled skin, her fingers glued together, webbed by a sticky emission.” (C 6)
- “Keeley said girls were unreasonable because they weren't any good at sport - they hadn't learnt any rules.” (C 9)
- “I can't eat when I'm with you ... I'd be sick. It's a compliment really.” (C 9)
- “In the end everyone expected a return on love, demanded a rebate of gratitude or respect. It was no different from collecting the deposit on lemonade bottles.” (C 10)
December 2019; 198 pages
Other brilliant Bainbridge books reviewed in this blog:
- The Birthday Boys: Captain Scott's doomed expedition to the South Pole
- Winter Garden: a surreal trip to the USSR