While there are elements of Libby Page's debut The Lido that deserve praise, not least its endearing narrative of two female friends 60 years apart in age, one wonders at the hype surrounding a mediocre novel in comparison with other more accomplished contemporary debuts.
According to the publicity, The Lido was bought in six-figure pre-emptive deals within 24 hours of submission in the UK and US, and will be published in 11 other territories. It is also set to become a movie in 2018, with the writers behind the recent box-office success Finding Your Feet on board.
The same feel-good factor of that movie is at the heart of Page’s story about two women who unite to save Brockwell Lido in south London from closing. Recently widowed 86-year-old Rosemary and the diligent, depressed young journalist Kate hope to save their local pool – and in the process, might just end up saving each other. It is a genuinely heart-warming plot that has at its roots strong ideas about community, friendship and the value of exercise for mental health.
The problem lies in the execution and in a pedestrian prose that lacks the style of Page's contemporaries such as Kit de Waal, Emma Hooper and Rachel Elliott, all of whom touch on similar topics in their novels. Both De Waal's debut My Name is Leon and her recently published second novel The Trick of Time are grounded in a community spirit made vibrant through isolated individuals and intense, colourful language. Hooper's Etta and Otto and Russell and James charts the relationships of elderly characters with a playful style and memorable prose. Elliott's Whispers Through the Megaphone delivers authentic voices of marginalised individuals who save each other through their unlikely pairings.
By comparison, The Lido is found wanting, with plain language that is easy to read but equally easy to glide over. A freelance journalist who has been a frequent contributor to the Guardian, where she featured earlier this year as a debut novelist to watch in 2018, Page's credentials also warrant comparison with journalist-turned-authors such as Paula Cocozza and Laura Garnett, whose clever takes on modern relationships in their respective debuts were far superior.
At 25, there is the sense that Page is a more fledgling writer, with obvious skills that will no doubt be developed as she continues in her career. The characterisation of her two main protagonists is vivid, with each voice believable and at times deeply affecting.
There is decent momentum in early chapters as Kate details her loneliness in London, coming home each evening from her job in the Brixton Chronicle to a soulless house-share, eating jars of peanut butter alone in her bedroom before crying herself to sleep. Her panic attacks, which are related more so than shown, still come through in the descriptions: "A creature that follows me and can suddenly kick me in the back of the knees."
While Rosemary’s tale of her decades-long romance with husband George can be poignant in parts, it is her present-day situation as an elderly widow who lives for her daily outdoor swim that really hits home. Page has put careful thought into how a woman approaching 90 thinks and feels: “When she climbs out she is no longer young and is painfully aware of the existence of her knees.”
Another beautiful observation simply relates: “She is finding it hard not to cry at the feeling of being touched on her bare skin”. The serviceable prose can be effective at times, particularly in dialogue. “Never be sorry for feeling,” Rosemary advises Kate. “Never be sorry for falling in love. I was never sorry. Not for a single day.”
But in large chunks of the novel, the writing lacks finesse and the pit-pat style tells frequently of character motivation: “Perhaps if she at least tries to get back in the water she can swim back to that feeling.” A bigger problem is with a lack of narrative control that switches omnisciently from characters with no apparent logic – here a pregnant woman swimming in the lido, there a fox roaming the streets. A shift at times into the second-person voice is especially grating, as are short chapters given over to peripheral characters who then fade into the background. Subplots and characterisation involving a romance with a photographer and a sister living in another city are underdeveloped. The book can also be repetitive on its theme of the restorative powers of friendship and exercise, and the ending is both too neat and anti-climactic.
This is perhaps a harsh assessment of a novel that has a lovely story at its centre, but the feel-good factor can only go so far. Forget the hype – in a highly competitive arena of debut authors, The Lido is a drop in an ocean full of talent.