Reasons to be Cheerful review: Darkly comic account of coming of age
Nina Stibbe is one of the great comic writers of our time
Author Nina Stibbe: Her particular style of comedic writing is executed with great literary confidence in her new book. Photograph: David Levenson/ Getty Images
Reasons to Be Cheerful
In the current climate of political upheaval, epidemics of anxiety and social disorder, we all need some inklings of hope and cathartic hilarity to raise our spirits. Indeed, we are quite desperate for reasons to be cheerful. Fortunately, Stibbe has stepped forward with a timely offering of just the tonic that we need with her third instalment of the Vogel family’s eccentric happenings.
Stibbe is one of the great comic writers of our time. Her previous two novels, Man at the Helm and Paradise Lodge, were both shortlisted for the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize for Comic Fiction. Her joyful epistolary memoir, Love Nina, won Non-Fiction Book of the Year at the UK’s National Book Awards in 2014 and was subsequently adapted by Nick Hornby for a BBC television series. Comparisons to Sue Townsend, PG Wodehouse, Barbara Pym and Jane Austen are not unfounded, for her particular style of comedic writing is executed with great literary confidence. Here is a woman in complete control of her craft.
If readers aren’t familiar with the first two Vogel novels, it is still entirely possible to read Reasons to Be Cheerful as a standalone, but for those who have followed the family’s previous misadventures in life, it is wonderful to see how their story has evolved. In particular, it is so pleasing to observe the development of the daughter of the family, and star of Paradise Lodge, the incomparable Lizzie Vogel.
This book is set in 1980; Lizzie is 18 and embarking on her first experience of leaving her family home to take up a new position as a dental nurse in Leicester city. What follows is a darkly comic account of one hapless teenager’s coming of age experiences that, although uniquely specific to her particular tiny patch of the world, still remain true to the universal adolescent experience.
Amid the laughter there are beautifully drawn poignant moments that capture the sometimes bittersweet, often heartbreaking, realities of life
As she navigates the endurance test of working for a xenophobic, sexist, racist, incompetent dentist who is obsessed with joining the Freemasons, Lizzie realises how the personal can be political and so evolves as the moral compass of the novel without ever becoming preachy. Instead, she begins to understand how one person can be an agent for change in a society that desperately needs it.
Meanwhile, Lizzie is also attempting to seduce her first boyfriend, despite her terror of sex and eating in public. At times her behaviour is so cringe-worthy it is painful to watch this girl we are rooting for suffer such magnificent mortifications but, ultimately, Stibbe’s own love for her character radiates from the page. As a consequence, it always feels as if we are empathising with her plight, laughing with her, and never at her.
Stibbe is not afraid, however, to force Lizzie to learn vital lessons about adult life that are essential, even if she is not quite ready for them.
Lizzie’s mother, Adele, is ever present with her own unique parental style, ferocious literary ambitions, proclivity for the promiscuous, and articulate observations of life that ring true. Adele’s character is a comic creation with profound depth; her examination of what it means to be a mother, and a woman, while always raucous in its delivery, is nevertheless very moving. She offers a timely portrayal of questions that many women in the generations that followed her still face.
As with all great comedy, amid the laughter there are beautifully drawn poignant moments that capture the sometimes bittersweet, often heartbreaking, realities of life. Just as the reader may begin to crave some significant development in the narrative to drive Lizzie forward, Stibbe delivers a blow to the heart that elevates the entire work and becomes the catalyst for change she craves.
This book has the rare charm of offering us glorious entertainment while also holding up a mirror to what it means to be human. Stibbe’s gift is an ability to spotlight the unique moments of human truth that define a life. With pitch perfect dialogue and acute observations of behaviour, the world she creates feels authentic and honest.
It is far easier to be cynical today than optimistic, so much so that looking for the positive in our lives can seem like a political act of its own. As Robin Williams said, “Comedy is acting out optimism” and Stibbe is masterful in her execution. Against all the odds, she has succeeded in giving us reasons to be cheerful.