Hens Dancing

Hens Dancing

4.5 2
by Raffaella Barker

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Hilarity and tenderness abound in this novel narrated in pages torn from the diary of one Venetia Summers, a thirty-something divorced mother of three who resides in rural England and is owner of, among other things, controlling shares in her ex-husband’s pet mortuary and numerous pairs of oddly colored Wellingtons.

While Venetia’s life may not be as


Hilarity and tenderness abound in this novel narrated in pages torn from the diary of one Venetia Summers, a thirty-something divorced mother of three who resides in rural England and is owner of, among other things, controlling shares in her ex-husband’s pet mortuary and numerous pairs of oddly colored Wellingtons.

While Venetia’s life may not be as glamorous as the one she left behind in the city ten years ago, it certainly isn’t dull. She has two exuberant young boys and one splendid baby girl–known simply as The Beauty–to feed and outfit and keep happy. Other responsibilities include upkeep of a lovely but ramshackle old house, complete with a garden growing with wild abandon, and the care of a variety of bloomered bantam hens. Then there’s her mother, sometimes helpful and supportive but more often busy tossing back vodka and smoking cigarettes; a rather cute but presumptuous bathroom contractor and his oversexed Labrador; and various other friends, relations and country characters who dart in and out of Venetia’s life, wreaking havoc along the way.

Fortunately for her, Venetia is the sort who can find beauty in the surrounding mayhem, and fortunately for us, she records it all with wry wit and great verve, sharing the joys and sometimes dubious pleasures of raising a family in the English countryside.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“An entertaining celebration of family life with all its highs, lows and eccentricities. It puts Barker firmly in the camp of interesting female novelists who entertain as much as they inform.”–The Times (London)

“Imagine Bridge Jones cooled out, married, the mother of three, living in the British countryside–and suddenly deserted by her husband. The result might be something like this breezy novel.”–Us Weekly

“Rafaella Barker endows her narrator with a keen sense of humor. And the author’s disarming portrait of country life almost makes you want to trade places with Venetia.” –The Dallas Morning News

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
British magazine columnist Barker channels a postmodern Erma Bombeck in her thinly plotted yet charming U.S. debut, a year-in-the-life story told via the journal entries of Venetia Summers, a transplanted Londoner living in the Norfolk countryside. Feisty, 35-year-old Venetia has recently shed her philandering, ex-soldier husband, Charles, "who fries cuddly animals for a living." While Charles is thriving in the pet crematorium business and reveling in his new romance with "poison dwarf" Helena, Venetia delouses her sons Felix and Giles; staggers after her hyperactive eight-month-old daughter, "The Beauty"; and tackles laundry and gardening to avoid writing copy for corporate brochures. As house and garden deteriorate around her, Venetia bewails her fading looks and dependence on her mother, seeking solace in junk food, friends, trashy clothes and Georgette Heyer romance novels. She also refuses to admit that she has a serious crush on David Lanyon, the cute carpenter who volunteers to renovate her bathroom; in exchange, she takes photos for his publicity brochure. Barker keeps things wickedly off-kilter, subjecting various characters to unforeseeable disasters and indignities: one eats a toxic mushroom, one chops off his finger and another stumbles poolside only to have a "bit of his head" gobbled up by an affectionate Labrador. Readers who share Venetia's enthusiasm for Georgette Heyer will guess where Barker's predictable tale is heading, but the newer author's caustic pen will endear her to grownups who like their women quick-witted and their fairy tales fractured. (Feb. 28) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Meet Venetia Summers, a charmingly disorganized, thirtysomething single mom who's doing her best to raise her kids and keep her sanity in a rural English cottage amidst a maelstrom of pets, plants, and wacky relatives. Told in diary format over the course of a year, this work represents literary voyeurism at its best. We share in the birth of a daughter (The Beauty) after Venetia's husband, Charles, leaves her for the dreaded Helena; the antics of Venetia's well-meaning, albeit daffy, mother; chaotic seaside holidays; and the home-improvement projects of the increasingly attractive and available David. This wonderfully entertaining and endearing book, Barker's first American publication after much success in England, will doubtless be favorably compared to Helen Fielding's Bridget Jones's Diary (LJ 5/15/98). Her characters are real, the events believable, and the author able to address some all-too-common family problems without losing the story's humor and appeal. Venetia is a woman many readers would like to have as a friend. Essential for libraries with fans of Bridget Jones. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 10/1/00.] Susan Clifford Braun, Aerospace Corp., El Segundo, CA Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A popular British journalist chronicles a year in the life of an English single mother. Recently divorced Venetia Summers doesn't miss her philandering ex, even when a lonely Valentine's Day comes and goes. She soldiers on, raising three children on her own with a little help from her eccentric mum. Fortunately, her boisterous young sons, Giles and Felix, are independent by nature, and everyone dotes on her baby daughter, known simply as the Beauty. Besides, Venetia's dilapidated house in rural Norfolk keeps her too busy to brood, especially when David Lanyon, an attractive local contractor, begins some much-needed renovation. She heads for her personal sanctuary, the sprawling garden, where there's a lot to do, such as clipping overgrown hedges and her giant topiary chicken, plus coping with a wayward dog in heat and its panting suitors, as well as with a venerable cat with an appalling talent for hacking up hairballs in the worst possible places. And so forth. Venetia commiserates with girlfriends, takes seaside holidays with the children and solo excursions to London now and then. Being single isn't so bad, she realizes, especially since she doesn't have to worry overmuch about money, thanks to her part-ownership of ex-husband Charles's successful company, Heavenly Petting. This odd business, the only unlikely element in an otherwise delightfully down-to-earth story, is a one-stop funeral provider for parakeets and similar small creatures, offering cremation and miniature coffins, along with plaques testifying to the merits of the dear departed. Eventually, the self-centered Charles remarries, and his new wife is soon pregnant with twins, which, in Venetia's opinion, serves himright.Life goes on, the seasons change, and David finds more and more reasons to come around. One year later, to the day, he presents her with a unique Valentine of his own creation: a small but perfect knot garden. Understated but evocative prose makes this lighthearted romance a pleasure to read.

Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
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5.20(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.65(d)

Read an Excerpt

February 14 - Seven Valentine cards have been delivered to the house this morning by the postman, and not one of them is for me. Three are for Giles, who is eight and therefore at an age where the bolstering effect of a Valentine card goes unnoticed; two are for Felix, six, who is in a big rage that anyone has dared to be so sissy as to send him any; and two are for Charles, forty-one, who had not planned to be at home, but an airport strike prevented his business trip to Paris.

"How did they know I'd be here?" he murmurs, a smirk of smug spreading over his face. He drops the one his secretary always sends him without opening it and looks at the other. It is not from me.

"The postmark is smudged. Can you read it, darling?" he says to me, and, hating to miss an opportunity for one-upmanship, adds, "Did you really not get any cards? How odd."

Scrutinizing his envelope, I drop it in the washing-up water.

"Oops, sorry, Charles, it's a bit soggy now."

He looks at me with loathing. I smile sweetly.

Breakfast is an orgy of martyrdom on my part, as usual unnoticed by spouse and offspring, who according to age and inclination are reading their Valentine cards/the Beano comic/the cereal packet. I clear away, deliberately not asking for help, and return to bed. The telephone clicks a couple of times, and I know better than to pick it up. Charles has a sixth sense for an overheard conversation and will insist he's simply checking in with the office. I think he's having an affair, and am shocked to find that I don't care. Even being five months pregnant doesn't make me care; in fact it cushions me from any feeling toward Charles stronger than mild dislike. So glad the hysteria and throwing things phase has passed.

After an hour or so of luxuriating with a romantic novel, Regency Buck (my second-favorite by the peerless Georgette Heyer; I have just finished my namesake and favorite, Venetia, for the seventeenth time), I am renewed and can face the day, so rise again with a view to gardening. Downstairs, the boys hover in an aimless fashion, kicking things and playing "Greensleeves" repeatedly on the piano. Their father is still on the telephone. They need fresh air.

"Come on, I need help, you two," I urge. "Please will you come and clip the yew hedge with me?" Giles continues to play "Greensleeves" in various keys. Felix shoots at me with a bow and arrow but misses and loses his arrow behind a painting which is propped against the wall, still waiting to be hung.

"Do we have to?" he whines, hurling himself backward onto the sofa. "I hate outside, it's really cold. I want to play cowboys in here with Dad."

"Dad is going outside too," I say firmly, as Charles sidles toward the serenity of the drawing room with his newspaper. He glares, but complies. Felix is won over by the discovery of a magnificent pair of secateurs in the conservatory. Thus armed, he takes a stepladder to my token topiary, a gloriously sculpted ten-foot-tall chicken, and prepares to strike. Charles is passing at this moment, and although he fails to register the chicken crisis, he wants to use the stepladder, so Felix and his flashing blades are diverted to ground level and a less precious bush. Giles, having condemned me as "really sad" for asking him to help, is forty feet up a tree, shouting instructions to the rest of us about where to find the wheelbarrow, the rake, and all the other garden implements he can see scattered in the long grass, relics of last weekend's attempt to get the children to help outside.

"Mummy, you've completely missed that spade; go back ten paces and then a little to the right and you'll see the trowel as well."

It is pointless to ask him to come down—he won't, and an unseemly shouting match will ensue from which he will emerge victorious and possessor of the high ground—literally. Can't help wishing that instead of encourag- ing him to think of himself as one of life's commanders, his school would exercise a few more Victorian dictums. "Seen and not heard," "polite to elders and betters," "helpful and courteous at all times" could all be drummed in to great effect. Sour-lemon thoughts are interrupted by his appearance from the tree with a spray of cherry blossom, a joyful hint of pink in its tiny buds.

"Happy Valentine's Day, Mummy," he says. February 14—One Year Later Woken by the doorbell instead of The Beauty, and dash down to find the postman, grinning, with a handful of cards.

"Happy Valentine's, love," he says. "You're a bit popular, aren't you?"
Leafing through them in the kitchen, am relieved that he did not notice the names on them: four are for Giles, which seems excessive to me, two for Felix, and one for The Beauty. None for me. Can't help remembering last Valentine's Day. Improvements since then include having become mother of The Beauty (now eight months old), and having shed faithless husband (divorce now three weeks old), but still no Valentine cards. So much for the glamorous life of the divorcée.

Spluttering and growling noises similar to those made by a small lawn mower announce over the intercom that The Beauty has woken and will require breakfast. So will the boys, now clumping downstairs uttering the usual litany of "Mum, where are my shoes? Is there any food? Can we get a Nintendo Sixty-four?"
Felix freaks out when presented with his cards. "I hate them; I don't want anyone to send me Valentine cards. They're for girls. You have them, Mum." He hurls his spoon into the porridge saucepan, and porridge rises like a tidal wave and slops onto the Aga hot plate.

"But one is from Dad," says Giles. "Look, it's definitely his writing."

Felix is placated by this, but I am irritated. The school run mother of the day arrives and the boys depart like a mini tornado, books, biscuits, and pencil cases whirling around them, closer and closer until they vanish into rucksacks. The Beauty waves regally, bouncing on my hip as we let the hens out and throw them a few scraps. The air is steel-cold and heavy on the lungs; the hens, plump in ruffled feathers, groan and cluck a bit, then troop back into the henhouse. They are protesting against the weather, and none of them has laid an egg since October. February 17 Odd communication from Charles asking me if I want to sell my shares in Heavenly Petting. He will give me a markup on their value. Instantly suspicious as Charles is the ultimate nipcheese, so send his letter straight to Maurice Salmon, my lawyer.

Heavenly Petting began life in an old electrician's workshop on the Bedford Road in Cambridge and came into being because Charles was keen on shooting and wanted to employ a taxidermist to stuff various bird corpses. While investigating taxidermy, Charles became morbidly obsessed with dead animals and quickly recognized a business opportunity. As he had never liked live animals at all, I couldn't take the idea seriously, but he persevered, working day and night to build his first crematorium, before moving out into the local streets to chat up the old ladies who lived in the terraced houses which fanned out from Cambridge into the fens. His first client was a blue budgerigar called Billy. Charles charged Mrs. Day £7 for Billy's funeral service and a cardboard box containing his ashes. The funeral service comprised handing Mrs. Day a piece of paper with Billy's name, type, and age on it, then standing with her in the whitewashed workshop for three minutes listening to a tape of Albinoni's Adagio.

"We will bring you the ashes a little later. We like to check up on the bereaved to make sure we have done all we can to help," Charles gravely told her, patting her hand as she dabbed her nose with a mournful mauve handkerchief. Mrs. Day tottered home to an empty cage, immaculate, as she had scrubbed it to keep herself busy before the cremation. Charles scooped a spoonful of ash out of the incinerator into which he had chucked Billy's little body sometime earlier, filled a household matchbox he'd painted blue that morning, and arrived on Mrs. Day's doorstep before she had had time to make herself a cup of tea. She couldn't bear the empty cage, she said, so Charles offered to take it away. He sold it for £10 the next day, and hey presto, Heavenly Petting was launched and running at a profit on its first transaction.

That was ten years ago. Charles had just left the army, I was pregnant with Giles, and we wanted to live in the countryside. My grandmother had left me some money, and with it and some of his own, Charles bought his first incinerator and the inaugural premises of Heavenly Petting. I found the house, and Heavenly Petting paid for us to live in it. And still does. I suppose any marriage guidance expert, or indeed fortune-teller, could have told me that a marriage to a man who fries cuddly animals for a living would not last, but I never had time to look ahead until too late.

Meet the Author

Rafaella Barker writes a regular column for the English magazine Country Life. She lives with her husband and three children in Norfolk, in rural England.

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