This is a strange book because it can’t decide what it wants to be. Romance? Parody? Social critique? Autobiographical novel? This was Stella Gibbons’ sixth published novel and is unusually lengthy at close to 500 pages. My edition of it has an inaccurate blurb, suggesting that the editor wasn’t sure what the book is really about. I do like the book – I’ve now read it twice – but it’s not one of her best. There are some brilliant passages here and there, among some very mundane content which could have been cut out.
The story follows two characters the same age, who meet briefly as children and are then living their separate lives until much later on, when their stories entwine. Amy Lee is a poor Londoner whose dream is to be a published writer. Robert Vorst is a wealthy American who wants to be a doctor but he gets mixed up with gangsters. Amy is a much more believable and developed character than Robert, possibly because she has experiences, traits and locations in common with the author. The Americans seem to be stock characters taken straight from Hollywood films, but I have no idea if this is tongue-in-cheek or evidence of the 1930s British public’s glamorous perception of Americans. Furthermore, I’ve never been to the US and I haven’t met many of its citizens, but even I can tell that the language they use in this story is mostly British English.
I enjoyed the details in the novel, such as the interiors, clothing, slang expressions and how people entertained themselves. While it’s not great literature, it does have a lot of value in telling us what it was like to live in that era, just before the Second World War.
I wouldn’t recommend this book if you’re new to Stella Gibbons, but if you’ve enjoyed a few of hers already then it’s worth reading.
First published in 1939. The Vintage edition is from 2013.