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Elizabeth Buchan’s beloved bestsellers, Revenge of the Middle-Aged Woman and The Good Wife Strikes Back, have made her an icon of upmarket women’s fiction. Taking her characteristic wit and emotional resonance to a new level, her latest novel focuses on two lives separated by forty years of history. In 1959, a forty-something married mother finds herself immersed in a surprisingly passionate affair with a younger man, while in the present, a professional woman faces a daunting choice between her blossoming career...
Elizabeth Buchan’s beloved bestsellers, Revenge of the Middle-Aged Woman and The Good Wife Strikes Back, have made her an icon of upmarket women’s fiction. Taking her characteristic wit and emotional resonance to a new level, her latest novel focuses on two lives separated by forty years of history. In 1959, a forty-something married mother finds herself immersed in a surprisingly passionate affair with a younger man, while in the present, a professional woman faces a daunting choice between her blossoming career and her husband’s desire for children. Mirroring each other in surprising ways, these twin stories offer a deliciously readable funny and moving look at the battle of the sexes across time—and deliver another smart, nuanced novel for Elizabeth Buchan’s growing fans.
I must have fallen asleep, for I found myself watching a dream television documentary about Bill and Lola's orchard. It had been transformed into an industrial factory field, patrolled by machine dragons. I was busy writing out headings in my notebook. Under 'Birdsong', I entered 'None'. Under 'Butterflies', 'None'. I added: 'No scutter of life in the grasses.; When I looked up at the trees they were hung with tidy, obedient, brightly coloured same-sized apples.
Confused, I woke up, rolled across to Charlie and slid my arm, oh, so gently, round his waist. Instantly I knew he was awake. 'I think I was having a nightmare about GM apples,' I said. 'They all looked the same.'
'America's my big chance,' I said quietly. 'I might never get another. It will only be a one-off.'
'If it works,' Charlie murmured, 'it will not be a one-off.'
A girl may dream. First series, third series...tenth series. Club and first class, weekends in the Hamptons, interesting people, interesting ideas, a new look at a different set-up...So many possibilities were scrambling to take up residence in my head. 'It's difficult to turn down such an offer.'
'Yup,' he agreed, with the same controlled articulation, but he was not agreeing.
'You wouldn't pass it up.'
'OK, Siena,' he said quietly. 'How do we resolve this?'
Charlie has learnt the art of holding silence in court, silences filled with more meaning than any words, but I was not so good at them.
'When do we have children, Siena, when do you think?'
'Charlie, as soon as there's a gap in my schedule, then we can have a try. I'm so sorry but a book, an idea, a programme, a project, has come up...The magazine wants a weekly column, not a monthly...I must concentrate on that.'
'Siena, time is ticking past...'
'I promise to think about it.'
Did he believe me? Probably not, for I had ducked and woven so often through the aforementioned thickets.
Charlie sat up in bed and switched on the light. He cupped my cheek in his hand. 'Do you mind me pointing out that you will be thirty-six next birthday?'
He reached for the glass by the bed and took a sip. I imagined the water trickling down his throat to a stomach churned by our late-night conversation.
'Charlie, I don’t want to lose all the ground I've made.'
'But you'll gain,' he said, and stroked my cheek. 'You'll be a beautiful, wonderful mother.'
A flicker of impatience shocked me. That kind of thing was so easy to say — and took no account of my instinctive cowardice. I drew a deep breath. 'I'm frightened, Charlie.'
'But I'm here.' He put down the glass and sent me a grin: so wry, it was almost bitter, definitely mocking and...boyish. Like the son he craved. All I wanted was to make Charlie happy, which seemed simple enough. Except that it wasn't.
He bent over me, trying for the hundredth time to find out what held me back, trying to understand. 'Do you know what I think, Siena?'
'You're going to tell me.'
'I think men are the new women. It's one of the by-products and ironies of feminism.'
My hand trembled a little as I turned off the light. The bedroom was plunged into darkness. Charlie touched my thigh. 'Consider...' (Whenever Charlie said, 'Consider,' I had a mental picture of him in his gown and wig, leaning on the court lectern with his bundle of documents, each significant step in the argument marked with a different-coloured Post-it.) '...you want to be at the top of your profession. I want a happy marriage and two point four children sitting at a table eating bowls of cereal, a drawer stuffed with drying-up cloths and a cat sleeping on the boiler. So I must be a new woman.'
Jay, my first husband, had been a great one for not putting things off. He did not put off marrying me — 'Why wait, honey?' — neither did he put off divorcing me — 'Why wait, Siena ?' He had a point: he lived by the principle that all of us could go under a bus within the hour. He did not take note of the cool transition before dawn, or the ambiguous dusk in the evening. With Jay, it was either night or day. Charlie was so much cleverer, more subtle, infinitely more embracing of the nuances of mind and spirit.
I was too upset by our conversation to sleep, which had happened a lot lately. The result was dark circles under the eyes and a wholesale application of Touche Éclat (NB: no girl should be without it).
The dark was not the soft velvet Guinness black as it sometimes was, but jet ink. Experience had taught me that I would have to wait patiently, with burning eyes, until dawn diluted it to grey.
'Time is running out.' Charlie’s voice, by my ear, startled me. 'It is...' He was placing his lawyer's finger on my 'thirty-five (but nearly thirty-six) which is twenty-five, these days, really' condition.
'Our children would be beautiful...perfect.'
'They're not accessories,' I flashed at him.
'Probably better if they were,' he came back, just as fast. 'You put a lot of energy and care into accessories.'
Calfskin or crocodile? Plastic or canvas?
'Not worthy, Charlie.'
'You're right. Sorry.' Abruptly, he sat up in bed, switched on the light. 'Siena. Open those big blue eyes of yours and take a look. You must think.' He looked down into them, searching for the Siena he wanted. 'Please, please, let's be sure we don't make a mistake.'
The trouble with seeing was that it meant you had to do something about it.
I reached up and brushed his hair off his forehead. 'Can we go to sleep, Charlie, please?'
Without another word, he switched off the light, lay down and turned his back.
Charlie was right, but all I could see were the wardrobes of Lucy Thwaite and her trapped sisters waiting to imprison me in their sad smells and capacious misery.
Soon Charlie's even breaths indicated that he was asleep, and I was glad — he needed it. I matched my breaths to his, a silly habit but it made me feel close to him, running parallel in a way that was impossible during the day.
There we were, then, breathing in tandem, the heads of a household of two.
Thank God, I slept.
When Charlie woke as the alarm clock performed its morning aerobics, I was ready with a cup of tea for him.
He struggled upright, groaned, and dropped his head into his hands. 'Were you a hospital matron in a previous life? Time?'
'Get-up time.' I sat on the bed and waited for him to surface properly. 'Hope today goes well.'
He blew on his tea. 'So do I.'
I watched him assemble himself for the day: clearing his head, straightening his limbs. Today the death of a baby would have to be accounted for. The case was going to be a long haul and the shadows cast by it were long and full of sorrow. I knew that Charlie would suffer if (a) his client was found guilty, (b) she had done it. The two points were not necessarily linked, and vice versa.
I hated to think of Charlie suffering, so I switched subjects. 'I'll be talking to India.'
'I expected you would.'
In the background, the phone rang in my office. I tensed, as if poised for flight. It would be the first of many calls and might be important, perhaps something I should sort out now, this minute.
Charlie read my thoughts. 'It can wait, Siena.'
'But maybe not.'
For answer he took my hand and teased each finger straight. 'Sometimes I think we're addicted to work.'
The answer-phone clicked on.
Charlie swung out of bed — long, strong, masculine legs, feet planted squarely on the floor — and padded into the bathroom. The radio was switched on, water ran, and I noticed that rain was lashing the window. I had forgotten to put on my slippers and my feet were icy. I inspected them. The nails were painted a pale pink, but it was time for a pedicure — the varnish had chipped. The palm-top diary was on the bedside table, and I 'leafed' through it. Maybe I could snatch one between lunch and the weekly visit to Fashion, This Week?
Again the phone in my office rang. Click went the answer-phone. With an effort, I stopped myself running into the office and closing the door against the unanswered questions.
A naked Charlie came back into the room, and dressed with his back to me. 'Are you going to stay there all day?'
The Cellophane crackled as he unpacked his laundered shirt.
'No.' I took my turn in the bathroom, which was steamy; the air-conditioner whined like an old dingbat. I got into the shower and ran it as hot as I could take, then cold. Good for cellulite, circulation and complexion.
A fully dressed Charlie appeared at the doorway. 'Bye, darling.' He shot his shirt cuffs. He looked washed, brushed, clever and wily — the Charlie who appeared in court.
The other Charlie, the softie, the loving one, who told me he was mine, lived here.
I couldn't bear to part with our differences still churning between us. I grabbed a towel and I kissed him and my damp hair dripped on to his suit.
He grasped me tight and kissed me back. 'I'll be late.'
The front door slammed.
I loved being alone in the flat. The solitude felt safe. Here, I could stretch and settle like a cat. I enjoyed travelling — who didn’t? — but after a while, in Rome, Sydney or India, the call of where I belonged sounded in my ear. Lost in the Wild Wood, Mole in The Wind in the Willows lifted his face and sniffed the air: ‘Home...’ And so did I.
Embankment Court was a block of riverside flats, with a gym and a swimming-pool, necessities in our lifestyle. Our apartment had two bedrooms. 'One for the non-speaking nights,' I said, when Charlie and I originally inspected it.
'On non-speaking nights, you'll be with me in our bed because if we have a disagreement we'll talk about it,' Charlie retorted, and ran his finger down my spine (which held up the practical discussions). The kitchen was small, which was not good, but the sitting room was huge, light and airy — a statement — and my office overlooked the river.
It was, of course, far too expensive and Charlie had last-minute doubts about it being too opulent, but I persuaded him that we could afford it. 'We'll manage,' I promised. 'I've got good money coming in.'
'We don't need such a smart flat.'
'You're allowed to live in a nice place,' I told him. 'Read my lips.'
He uttered a shout of laughter. 'I'd rather kiss 'em.'
That was all right, then.
Crypto-ascetic as Charlie might be, I could not help noticing he enjoyed living in the flat — almost more than I did.
The river provided daily theatre. Sometimes its water was sullen and crushed. At others it reflected dazzling starbursts of light and movement. Adjectives clicked along my descriptive abacus: captivating, changeable, unreliable, dangerous, spoilt. Today it was calm, nondescript and benign.
My first call was to India. 'Just going to bell you,' she said. 'Got your diary?'
I loved India, we were friends, but there was no question of my confiding to her any problems with Charlie. I reached for the palm-top. 'Go ahead.'
'Deep breath, Siena...'
Together we roughed out the schedules for Fashion, This Week, a couple of appearances on afternoon television programmes and the trip to New York. The year was blocked out with frightening speed.
'Now,' said India , 'I think it's about time you did a book.'
'Oh, my God.'
'No bleating,' said India , severely. 'Many girls would give their eye-teeth to be in your position. So wise up and let me put out some flyers.'
I wised up. Afterwards I worked through a pile of magazines that were delivered each week. It was my business to know what was going on in my neck of the woods and the magazines were the voices — soft-focus but ruthless, pretty but pretty tough — that issued invitations to step into a Never-never Land of perfect food, perfect surroundings and perfect clothes. I glanced over at the letter I had pinned to the noticeboard and managed to reread: '...our outer covering is of little significance compared to what is within.' Perhaps as we, the magazine readers, plodded towards an aspirational heaven of distressed houses and gardens and fragrant, purposeful wardrobes, the writer of that letter had spotted a flaw in the blueprint.
I leafed through one magazine that used cheaper paper and did not concern itself with the cutting edge or frills but concentrated on traditional fare — recipes for quick cheese meals, advice on how to lose weight without dieting, a hundred and one uses for Tupperware — and my attention was caught by an interview with a woman who had gone in search of her mother, who had given her up for adoption over four decades ago: 'My name is Kathleen but I didn't know who I was...'
Kathleen had found her mother who, it turned out, unmarried and disgraced, had been made to part with her baby. The photographs accompanying the piece showed the birth-mother as a teenager, in the tightly cinched skirt, buttoned blouse and hat of the fifties. The clothes far better suited to an older woman than to the girl who wore them badly. They imposed certain inflexible requirements on their wearer: a rigour of suspender belts, whalebone and modesty.
I touched the young, frightened, bewildered face with a fingertip. I had so many choices, and she had been permitted so few.
I checked my watch.
The offices of Fashion, This Week hummed. A fleet of messengers whisked in and out of Reception and girls manoeuvred racks of clothes in and out of the lifts. Journalists in serious black talked into their mobile phones. The fashion brigade looked icy in cut-off trousers, and photographers wore uniform leather. The girl who was employed to maintain the plants in the atrium was cleaning the leaves of the ficus one by one.
On the third floor, I picked my way over piles of clothes, dodged racks and discovered Jenni ranting into the phone. 'Why the hell do we have to use freelancers?' she was saying. 'They cause more trouble, more work, and we're perfectly capable of doing it ourselves, much better, actually.' She glanced up, saw me and reddened. 'Speak later,' she muttered, and terminated the conversation.
To say that Jenni disapproved of the freelancer was an under-estimation. Freelancers were a threat, a nuisance and a slur on the internal team's creativity.
'Hi,' I said, amused.
Jenni recovered her composure. 'Lucy Thwaite rang. She wants to duck out.'
Jenni examined a cuticle. 'You're the one who'll know. What do you want to do about the photographer? And who do you want to use as back-up? This is an arse, Siena.'
She was right.
Of course, Lucy's defection might have been my fault, which was what Jenni was implying. Her anxiety was infectious (and easily caught): she was worried that a glitch like this would reflect badly on her and it didn't take too many mistakes at Fashion, This Week before an outsider was transformed into an unemployed outsider.
'Let me phone her.' I dialled the number. 'Is that Lucy? Hallo, this is Siena Grant.' In the background, I heard a couple of the children screaming at each other.
'Excuse me,' said Lucy, and pitched her voice a professional decibel over the children’s. 'Stop it, you lot.' She returned to the phone. 'Look, I don't think this is going to do me any good, or you.'
I took a deep breath. 'Lucy, if you're going back to work, it will help if you get some advice on looking your best. It does help, I promise you, and I've got some good ideas that I think will be perfect.' Jenni listened as I cajoled and persuaded. After a couple of minutes, I sensed a thaw at the other end of the line and when I hung up Lucy had agreed to honour the appointment at the photographer's studio the following day.
'OK,' I reported to Jenni. 'She's up for it.'
'Well done,' she said, trapped between the desire to avoid a crisis and her disappointment at being defrauded of a little Schadenfreude.
We returned to the problem of Lucy Thwaite and spent the next hour or so working out how to edge past the barriers that, as a put-upon mother of three, she had erected, and to clothe her so that her lovely skin and neckline showed to advantage while her stomach and hips were camouflaged. Once this was achieved, who knew where Lucy Thwaite would go next?
After that Jenni and I checked photographs of next week's victim on the light box, marked them up and gave the all-clear to Production.
I told Jenni she looked fabulous in her black trousers and wraparound jersey top and she actually gave me a smile when I left.
I know that I have good taste but I cannot claim any credit for it since it was handed down to me by my parents. They came from families who, over the generations, had had time and money to develop and indulge it; the family houses and their contents were famous until recently when everything vanished: paintings, tapestries, trust funds and land.
My mother never talks about her family but my brother Richard and I were brought up in a small cottage close to our father's ancestral home, a beautiful Queen Anne mansion, which he had sold to a princeling from somewhere or other.
My mother derived huge amusement from the comic aspects of the situation and fired regular postcard bulletins to me in her overlarge handwriting. 'The orange trees died in the last frost, darling. No one took them in.' Or 'Mrs Fleet tells me the loo-roll holders are pure gold.' Or 'Guess what, Siena! A Porsche has been abandoned on the lawn.'
My father ignored the comedy. The wound of losing his family home never healed. From early on, I noticed that he took pains to avoid the big house: on his daily walks he made an extra loop to keep it out of sight. When I taxed him on this, he was genuinely surprised. 'Do I do that, Siena ? I don't mean to.'
It is intriguing to analyse what we mean and don't mean to do, and my father's unconscious response to his loss made me wonder if we had any say over ourselves at all.
Consider (Charlie’s word). I love Charlie. I want to spend my life with him and do whatever it takes to make this possible. These are my conscious aims and desires. But what are the fears — of oblivion and obliteration? — the wayward desires, the goblins of selfishness and ego that prowl through my subconscious to prevent me doing this?
'I used to search for my baby,' said Kathleen's mother, in that magazine article. 'Everywhere. I looked into prams, I looked at babies on the bus. Sometimes, I stood outside the local school playground, and thought: That could be my daughter. Everywhere I went, there was her shadow. They told me to forget I had ever had a baby, but that's impossible. Impossible.'
With lively prose and a keen eye for detail, Buchan writes of the parallel lives of two married middle-aged women, Siena Grant and Barbara Beeching—women living forty years apart yet sharing similar concerns of love, loyalty, and independence. Casting a shadow over the safe familiarity of their respective lives, a decision looms; how each woman makes that choice demonstrates the many ways women's lives have changed over the course of a generation—as well as the ways they've stayed the same.
For Barbara, it is a question of temptation. A satisfied housewife with two grown children, a husband who is a pilot, and a talent for bridge, Barbara's life is stable to the point of routine. But when she meets Alexander Liberty, a dashing young student with whom she tumbles into an exciting affair, she begins to see herself in a whole new light. Torn between her love for her husband Ryder and her passion for Alexander, Barbara finds herself faced with a choice that could haunt her for the rest of her life.
Forty years later, Siena is also struggling with commitment, juggling a successful career as a fashion consultant with marriage to her second husband, Charlie. He wants children, she isn't so sure, and neither of them is getting any younger. With her biological clock ticking and their busy schedules conflicting, Siena can see that she's going to have to make a decision, and soon: she can take the leap into parenthood with Charlie or choose her career and possibly lose her marriage.
Buchan understands that getting what one wishes can be as confusing and risky as not knowing what one wants. Those who have enjoyed her other novels will find Buchan doing what she does best in Everything She Thought She Wanted. Readers who are discovering her for the first time will find a dynamic, and soon-to-be-favorite, voice.
Discussion Questions from the Publisher
1. Buchan begins the book with an epigraph by George Eliot, a woman who flaunted social conventions and wrote novels under a male pseudonym. Why do you think she chose this author and this particular passage to introduce the book?
2. Both Siena and Barbara challenge traditional ideas of femininity regarding maternal instincts and fidelity. What are some conventions of gender or age that have constricted you and how have you reacted to them? What is your definition of a successful woman?
3. How do the minor characters (Bunty, Manda, etc.) play into the struggles of Barbara and Siena? Which aspects of womanhood do these women represent? How are female friendships represented in the book?
4. What is your opinion of Barbara's affair? Would your opinion change if the affair had been with a man her age? What if it had been Ryder who had had the affair instead of Barbara?
5. In not wanting to have or discuss having children, is Siena being fair to Charlie? How do you feel the men are treated in the novel? Are there any similarities between Charlie and Ryder?
6. Both Barbara and Siena are searching for their own happiness. Is it possible to be completely happy? Did Siena and Barbara achieve happiness?
7. Barbara says, "I think women should run nations" (p. 43). Discuss how you think the world would be different, in both positive and negative ways, if women were in charge.
8. "Inside that body, the older Alexander was beginning to emerge," Barbara muses (p. 305). How are you different from who you were five, ten, or twenty years ago? Is it true that we become predictable with age?
9. How do you imagine Siena's life after the book ends? Does she have children? A career? Describe Barbara's life between her last chapter and the end of the book.
10. The saying "Be careful what you wish for" might apply to this novel. In what ways do the women get what they want and what are the results? Is there anything that you're wishing for? What would be the risks involved if you achieved those desires?
Posted February 19, 2009
Posted December 16, 2006
I had high expectations for this book after it was recommended to me, but when I finally read the book it was awful. The story wasn't developed well and at the very beginning it was confusing to distinguish what the author was trying to say. Then the ending was lackluster at best. Sienna's story was the most interesting but it got way too repetitive, her and her husband arguing about the same thing over and over again. You already know how it's going to end before you've finished the book. Usually, this is not necessarily a bad thing, but the road to the ending was plagued by bad writing, confusion, and general indifference to the characters.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted April 29, 2005
Songs, poems, essays, and books have been devoted to the question of what it is a woman wants. Perhaps it's best that this question remains unanswered as quite often the woman herself does not know. In Elizabeth Buchan's latest novel we find two very different women faced with this dilemma. A pair of expert voice performers, Ruth Moore and Katherine Kellgren, relate the stories of these women in alternating chapters. The upshot? As far as decisions facing a woman, there haven't been many dramatic changes in a half a century. It seems that while many would like to have it all - few, if any, have figured out to do it. Our story opens with Siena, a very today woman, with a successful career. She's involved in the tough-to-stay-on-top fashion world, and there's a lucrative television deal in the offing. Her husband, Charlie, is a fine man. Only thing is he has different aspirations, such as a country life and children. What's Siena to do? On the other hand, Barbara Beeching lived almost fifty years ago. She's the mother of two adult children, and married to Ryder. A favorite of both friends and family, she's generous, accommodating, and content. At least she thought she was content until she spied a handsome younger man who is strongly attracted to her. Another choice. Women will especially respond and relate to Siena and Barbara as they face critical issues at midpoint in their lives. - Gail CookeWas this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted September 4, 2010
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Posted January 18, 2010
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Posted November 16, 2008
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