What I’ve been reading: Small Pleasures

I know we’re pretty far into 2022 now, but it would be rude not to start off by saying Happy New Year! However, I will be the first to put my hands up and say, this has probably been the most January-y January of my entire life and I can’t wait for it to be over. In fact, the title of my latest read is incredibly apt, because small pleasures have been the only thing getting me through this greyer-than-grey first month of the year.

Hopping off the January depression train, onto things more positive, I’ve decided to set myself a little reading challenge this year. The goal is to read 24 books by the end of 2022 (or two books per month for all you maths lovers). Along with the GoodReads app, I’ve decided to try and combine my reading goal with a writing one, and keep myself accountable by reviewing each book alone, rather than rounding up the month’s reads. I am a little late on reviewing this one though, so expect another book blog sharpish (next up is The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides).

Anyway, onto the book at hand; I’m not really sure if I chose Small Pleasures by Clare Chambers, or if it chose me. Since my flatmate works for the book’s publisher, I feel like this is a novel that’s been following me round since it’s release. And it’s colourful cover definitely spoke to me (alas, when it comes to novel-picking, sometimes you have to judge a book by it’s cover).

I really enjoyed Small Pleasures although it’s not quite what I expected – what it was I expected I’m not entirely sure. Average-length-story short, Small Pleasures is about some of my very favourite themes du jour: love, womanhood, mothers and daughters. However, unlike some of my other more recent reads, this one is set it the oh-so-tropical location of 1950s Kent. So time period aside, familiar territory for Home County born-and-bred readers like me.

And when I say familiar territory, there’s a lot in Small Pleasures that is very relatable – despite some of the more bizarre plot points. The timing of this novel’s publication is really interesting. Whilst us readers have been stuck at home in the pandemic, the sense of isolation and claustrophobia that our protagonist Jean feels is all too real.

But, whilst Jean is more or less housebound in a very real way, there are other allusions to these feelings of claustrophobia, that pervade the novel. For starters, the very obvious personification of this feeling comes in the form of Kitty – a polio patient who is permanently confined to an iron lung (something I had to Google and it looks unpleasant to say the least).

In the metaphorical sense, there’s the question of marital and filial duty for women of the time. Without giving too much away, Jean falls in love with someone else’s husband (obvious no-no), plus, in a (very, very random) plot twist, we discover that Gretchen – the epitome of perfect wife and mother – is a lesbian. And since we’re in the 1950s, unfortunately that’s not on. Both Jean and Gretchen’s characters become conflicted, questioning their duties to society and retaining the family equilibrium and their very human need to love and be loved. Unfortunately, upsetting the balance ultimately leads to (assumed) heartbreak for both characters. You’ll get what I mean by “assumed” when you read it…

Before I finish, I couldn’t write about this novel without commenting on one quite major detail – all of the male characters are wet mops. The few male characters mentioned fall into one of three categories hopelessly unaware; passive to the point of useless; or absolute dickhead. And, since this is the menu being offered to the altogether stronger and more interesting female cast, I’m not surprised 1957 Kent wasn’t really for them.

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