Mimi and her husband Ralph have left social climbing, pushy parenting, and their marital problems behind them in London in favor of perfect, bucolic tranquility. Or so they thought. The village of Honeybourne has mud, masses of fresh air, and handsome hayseeds in abundance, but what should be rural heaven turns out to be just as tricky to navigate as Notting Hell, even with Mimi’s new best friend Rose—Dorset’s answer to Martha Stewart—by her side. Mimi can get by without world-class restaurants, spas, and vintage markets, but living without central heating is another challenge entirely. And while Honeybourne is thankfully free of prestigious preschools with waiting lists that begin in utero, it has its own fierce brand of competition—between landowners and eco-warriors, Old Money and No Money, Ralph Lauren-sporting racehorses and Barbour-wearing brood mares. Without a helipad for trophy guests, an organic farm shop, and a bottom that looks good in jodphurs, Mimi is at a distinct disadvantage. And that’s just the start of her problems, because Mimi also has a secret she must keep to save her marriage. With a gimlet eye for telling details and human foibles, Rachel Johnson has crafted a novel that is fresh, hilarious, and irresistibly funny—a brilliant slice of social satire with surprising depth and heart.
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
I'm sitting in the kitchen, the only warm place in the house. I have a pint of coffee in my Thermos (bought from the Wild Bean Café at service station, price of latte redeemed against price of cup) to my right, and am reading the paper. Calypso is lying pressed against my feet, which are I'm ashamed to report inserted into my exciting new fake-fur electric foot warmer with dual-setting massager which I ordered off the Argos Web site during one of my more recent online shopping jags. (I easily justify the regular delivery of squishy parcels addressed to me by telling myself there are no normal shops i.e., ones selling Swarovski-crystal-encrusted designer jeans, organic hemp baby clothes, Elle MacPherson Intimates within a hundred-mile radius of Home Farm. Works for me.)
The radio is on, and I am half listening to a report on shea butter made by a women's collective in northern Ghana on Woman's Hour.
Inside the foot warmer, I am wearing my favorite cashmere socks from Brora, sadly tiger-striped from having been dried and scorched on the Aga.
I am also "working" some long johns, last year's "boyfriend" jeans (skinny jeans are so over, according to Mirabel, which is a relief), an M&S merino thermal vest, an army surplus jersey, a scarf, and a quilted padded waistcoat in army green with brass popper buttons of the type that used to be seen, in the days, on Lady Diana before she became Princess of Wales.
Yes, I am wearing a Husky.
Like tapestry-patterned hand- knitted cardigans with toggles, crewelwork, English teeth, women in rugby shirts tucked into fractionally too tight high- waisted jeans, the Conservative Party, and Grow the Longest Carrot contests, Huskys have never gone out of fashion outside built- up areas.
I am taking full advantage of this reassuring fact.
"Hello?" I say, powering up my laptop so I can multitask while taking the call.
"Mimi?" comes a tweeting voice I know well. "It's Fenella!" she announces with excitement, as if she has produced her own grandchild.
"Hiiiii!" I cry.
Fenella Prigeon is the beauty editor of Results* magazine. We used to work together on the Telegraph, a million years ago. Last glimpsed by me at a tea party in Burlington Arcade for Tatler types and their posh pets (I was returning a pair of Vilebrequin swimming trunks that I'd bought for Ralph as a lovely present, which he had spurned without a second glance, reminding me that his old pair, minus elastic, were absolutely fine, and would be for many years, thank you very much).
"So, how are you?" I cry, as if I really, really want to know, automatically slipping back into insincere mode. I have never mastered the trick of simply being the same with everyone. With Fenella, therefore, I go all glossy and gushy.
"Oh," comes a faint sigh, an exhalation, as if I simply can't imagine the suffering. "I don't honestly think I've ever been so exhausted. It's been completely utterly frantic. Really manic."
I log on, input my password.
"Why?" I ask, knowing what's to come. Ralph has a theory that, if you listen to Fenella talk, you'd think that in harsh contrast to testing cellulite gels and nasolabial creams for a monthly magazine, slogging it out in the trenches of the Somme was a teddy bears' picnic.
"It's the, the spa guide," says Fenella, with a break in her voice. "I've had to write up no fewer than fifty that's five zero spas over the past six months, including some in the Far East and the Caribbean. I'm totally wiped out, before I've even begun on the living nightmare that is the annual teenage skincare issue."
"You poor thing," I say automatically.
"That's why I'm calling you, actually..." Fenella goes on, a wheedling note entering her voice. "There's this new spa, I thought you could go, take Mirabel. You only have to write a hundred fifty words, and you'd get, I'd say, at least two free treatments." Fenella throws this morsel in knowing full well that there's nothing, nothing, I like more than a luxury junket.
As she speaks, I am already picturing my eldest daughter and me lounging around in fluffy white robes, having massages to tinkling New Age music somewhere hot, I'm thinking, Bali, or the Maldives while demure maidens minister silently and with total concentration to our toenails.
"Gosh, Fenella," I say, playing it cool, wanting her to think I'm still a player, "I have a black diary at the moment, things are sooo busy, I don't know if I could squeeze a minibreak abroad in right now...where is it?"
"It's in Somerset," she says, in the reverential tones of one who has dutifully swallowed all the guff about expensive English holidays in the rain being so much nicer than cheap hot hols abroad. "On an organic farm, where they make their own pizza and muesli and bread, with hold on, let me just grab the bumf spelt. Spelt. Apparently it's some ancient type of wheat hold on, it's a grain from the grass family with a fragile gluten content, whatever that means. Anyway, all the therapies in the spa, and treatments, well, they're spelt-based, too, and I just thought, well, you've lost your column on the mag, you're local, aren't you? you're in Dorset there's no way I can fit it in with all my other commitments to do with the eco hair products special issue we're planning for the spring, just no conceivable way! Not from London. It takes longer to get to Somerset than it does to Ibiza. I can't pay you, but you could drive over, check it out, file a hundred fifty words...I thought it'd be a treat."
I replace the receiver with a sigh, having promised Fenella that I'd get back to her on the spelt spa gig.
Nothing could make it clearer. My friends, my former colleagues, my old neighbors think I'm flying below the radar. I've gone...free-range.
It's time to face it.
I'm not in Notting Hill now. I am not obeying an unwritten law that all women approaching forty have to weigh eight stone, wrangle with celebrities, interact with the atrophy wives, take their pedigree pets to the new dog spa and deli off Westbourne Park Road, and pretend to one another they don't suffer from "bonus envy."
I'm not doing the supermodel sweep at the Whole Foods Market on Kensington High Street as they load up on acai berries and seeds from the Food Doctor while bragging about how they, like, never go to the gym, and how they're, like, so busy running after their kids they don't need to work out, they're just naturally this skinny, and they are trying and trying but they can just never put on weight even though we know and they know, it's nil by mouth for them for literally years at a time.
What a relief, in so many ways.
Because there always is a but.
But, to be brutally honest, though it is a relief, I stand by that, of course I love the grass, the mud, the fact that I have a view of the rest of Dorset and the sea from my bedroom window (if I stand on tiptoe), and I love drinking in the fresh and clean smell of the countryside, with its wholesome tangy topnote of manure. I love the chill evening airs, the silence, the peace, and I love the fact that I can see all the stars on a clear night, and the Milky Way, and have become best friends with some barn owls, i.e., have allowed myself to be fully penetrated by the beauties of nature I do still kind of miss it. London. Notting Hill, and all that.
But mainly I miss it because there's no going back. After all, as everyone knows, and does so love repeating to you, once it's too late, as if I have made a brave lifestyle choice to dwell in the seventh circle of hell rather than in an utterly idyllic Dorset model village, "Once you're out of the London property market, Mimi, that's it, you know! You never get back in."
All the children are at school, but it's already 10:30 a.m. so it'll be dark in a few hours, and if I don't leave the house soon and walk Calypso I'll be tempted to go back to bed for a snooze, as that's so much more inviting a prospect than finally getting to grips with the vegetable patch. My morning dog-walk circuit takes in the Post Office and Stores, the pub, the Stag, and the village green.
Okay, the Stag: standard-issue Dorset pub, i.e., it's wall-to-wall roaring fireplaces, growling local "characters," smell of old pipe smoke from before smoking ban, nicotine-stained orange ceilings, skull-cracking low beams, Badger ale, famous for...not the beer, not the snug, certainly not the food or the friendliness of its regulars the chain-smoking woodcutter "young" Colin Watts, the butcher's son (young only in comparison to most drinkers); the Melplashes; the farmers; the farriers; and so on but its annual nettle-eating competition, and the house pet.
I didn't know anything about it until Garry, the landlord, who serves underneath a sign saying garry's bar, asked me if Calypso was "okay around wolves."
I didn't really take it in and then he said, "Because they smell different than dogs."
And then he brought this rangy, ribby thing with pale eyes and trembling flanks through on a lead, and I quivered, "What sort of wolf is it?" drawing Calypso close, and he said, "A wolf wolf," and that he had gone to Alaska to get it when it was so big, holding his hands apart like an angler describing his catch. Anyway, the animal's name is Cherokee, but the children call it Wolf Wolf.
As for the nettle-eating contest, well, that's a contest during which people eat as many yards of nettles as they can, and if you don't believe me, there're pictures of contestants, gaping mouths stained with green, pinned up next to the postcard advertising the next meeting of the Pudding Club.
Although I had discovered after doing an online search that there is a riding stable in Honeyborne with "qualified owner on site" and "excellent hacking" that takes children of all ages and abilities, I couldn't resist switching screens and clicking open the new arrivals.
It takes ages to open files on my laptop so annoying, I must have a virus. It's funny how a delay of just a few seconds can have the power to irritate so much.
"British Gas Launches New Web Site" is the first message.
But the second I stare at for ages before opening. It's from Clare Sturgis. My heart lurches, and then starts hammering, just seeing her name in my in-box.
I'm reading it now.
It's like a digest of all the news and gossip from Lonsdale Gardens in one mouthful. Everything I ever wanted to know about what's going on back in Notting Hill but was too proud to ask.
Here we go.
I wonder who gave her my new email address.
She hopes I'm well...she misses me (yeah, right she bought my house, my children's home, from my husband behind my back, but hey, what's a £2 million house on a Notting Hill communal garden between friends)...my old cleaner, Fatima (Clare poached her, too), is very well and Fatty would send love but has sciatica and isn't working this week...baby Joe is toddling...Trish and Jeremy Dodd-Noble have bought a superyacht...Anoushka is pregnant with number two (Oof. Hurts. I've only just recovered from the cosh blow of little Darius coming along while Si Kasparian was supposed to be in an exclusive extramarital relationship with ME)...stuff about her boring garden design being on hold during Joe's "precious early childhood years"...how she's interested in the broader possibilities of smallholding and growing veg and becoming more self-sufficient...stuff about London being in the flood zone, and needing to find a bolt hole with food security on higher ground...how Gideon is finding the communal garden "too intense" now they're parents...what's it like in Dorset...how is Ralph...da da da...and oh, yes, here we are. Here we go. The point of the email. The "ask," as Ralph puts it, with inverted commas, of course.
I'm going to answer it straightaway while I have the wind in my sails and bit between teeth which means that the dog walk and the kitchen garden will just have to wait.
Thanks so much for your lovely email. Crikey, it's been a long time. It feels about a hundred years since I was last in Fresh & Wild (which has, apparently, closed) trying to persuade myself that a large slab of vegan tofu banana cheesecake for pudding was, actually, really healthy.
I'm really glad, tho', you got in touch, and don't remotely mind that the main object of your contact (reading between the lines) was how to get baby Joe into nursery at Ponsonby Prep. Isn't he getting on for two now? I presume you put him down in utero. And that he is completely proficient in the basics sackbut, Albanian nose flute, Sanskrit, etc.
Well...I have to warn you.
One Notting Hill mother Helene, you must remember her, that power-wife married to Goldman Sachs banker on £5m a year virtually went down on her knees and begged all the other mothers inc. me to compose handwritten letters of personal recommendation to Doc H on behalf of her daughter Camille. This would have been fine but 1. I'd never met Camille and 2. Camille was all of five months, and I couldn't really vouch for her precocity in key skills like napping and smearing pureed sweet potato on her high chair, but that didn't matter to Helene, of course.
Helene in addition sent the admissions secretary a bunch of flowers every week for a whole school year before even getting on the waiting list, so watch out. Doc H reminded Helene that Ponsonby (where it is, I remind you, harder to get a place than a table at the Ivy) allocates only five places per month, on a first come, first served basis. He said it was better not to leave it until five months after delivery but to "schedule a caesarean" for the 30th or the 31st (as if real due date and Mother Nature, etc., a complete irrelevance) so that "in an ideal world" she would have been first in the queue with a filled-in registration form on the first of the month.
When I told Ralph he listened in silence and then commented, "It after all wasn't easier for a Camille to pass through the doors of Ponsonby Prep ho ho ho than a rich man to enter the kingdom of God ha ha ha," and laughed out loud at his own not very good joke.
God, Clare, I thought I would feel all cross and hoity when I saw the email was from you, but I didn't. I felt pleased. I now realize, and I hope you believe me, that I'm glad YOU bought the house from Ralph and no one else. I was knocked sideways at the time, and now I really am okay about it.
The way things are going in Notting Hill, from what I hear, is that the Russians are block-buying whole London squares without even asking the price, so it's nice to think of someone reasonably normal like you and Gideon and of course baby Joe and Fatima in the old wreck rather than some flashy private equity magnate or hedge funder. I miss you all, and I miss the garden, now that I'm Country Barbie down here. I miss Fatima's help I never realized how much she did.
Anyway, must stop now, and go and stare at green fields through the kitchen window. It's pouring again. I should really go upstairs, and tidy the linen cupboard, and make my bed.
I can't get away from the fact that I'm bored, I admit it, and Ralph is always away. It was really good to hear from you. I feel so left out. Okay, Marguerite calls occasionally, and I do get news of Si from the Sunday Times Rich List and so on, but I totally got the feeling that you think I've moved the show off Broadway.
I do know I can't offer any of the deluxe country-house-hotel comforts that townies now expect, having their rooms tidied and suitcases unpacked, masses to eat, hot towel rails, goose down mattress toppers, ever-changing cast of amusing guests. Plus, we live in an ancient stone farmhouse in a remote river valley that comes into its own in the summer months without, as one cannot emphasize enough, central heating.
I can just survive without being surrounded by cafés, shops, girly boutiques, spas, chi-chi delis, world-class restaurants, cinemas, clubs, vintage markets, and all the delights that Notting Hill had to offer.
But going without my lovely, rich, fair-weather London FRIENDS (especially you, of course!) is almost too much.
P.S. Can't resist saying can't believe this email is so long and boring more like a LibDem manifesto than a quick reply so sorry...I do hope it's all right now you've had Joe I think I'm pregnant again. Must be Ralph's world-beating potency. Am sitting here with boobs like Zeppelins, hot flushing, with metallic taste in mouth and, even more telling, could only drink one glass of white wine last night rather than entire bottle on my own before the end of the six o'clock news, and haven't even missed a period yet. It tasted like vinegar and went down like paint stripper rather than promised fleshy, flirty, vanilla notes on the palate with a long, buttery finish. Also found myself listening quite happily to Wogan show on Radio 2 and sobbing to "Just When I Needed You Most" by Randy VanWarmer.
When I just hinted, very offhand, not giving anything away, Ralph only flinched very slightly at the mere topic of pregnancy, rather than blenching, so felt encouraged, but then he said that in his experience women always thought they were in pig but never were.
I press send. I know that telling Clare I might be pregnant is perhaps inadvisable, given her ten-year struggle to conceive, but I simply given all that's gone on can't resist it.
Copyright © 2008 by Rachel Johnson
Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for In a Good Place includes discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Questions for Discussion
1. “I shake my head, enjoying the fact that, with Mimi, everything is a drama and a crisis” (page 18). Is Rose’s perception of Mimi accurate? If so, why does she like that about her? Could the same statement apply to Rose as well?
2. How do you perceive Mimi’s “Ten Rules of Country Living” on pages 39 to 41? Is she truly happy living at Home Farm, or would she rather be in London?
3. For most of the novel, we see Ralph and Pierre as described by Mimi and Rose instead of hearing them actually speak. Why do you think Rachel Johnson wrote them this way?
4. Were you surprised by the revelation that Rose has had several extramarital affairs? Why did she decide to share this information with Mimi?
5. “I was ready for this windmill thing to be about new green versus old blue. But it doesn’t appear to be so black and white after all” (page 122). What does Mimi mean by this statement? What are your thoughts about the town dynamic?
6. How would you describe the role of motherhood in the novel? Based on the way Mimi describes them, how do country mothers compare to those in London?
7. When Rose discovers that her daughter, Ceci, knows about her affair with Jesse Marlon, why doesn’t she care? Does Pierre know as well? And if so, why doesn’t he confront his wife?
8. “Like all keen fishermen, Ralph’s main, if not only, aim in life—not just on the riverbank—was the achievement, and then the extension, of a period of peace and quiet” (page 234). Considering Ralph’s demeanor, why did he consent to father Clare’s baby? Do you believe him when he says they didn’t have an affair? Does Mimi?
9. What role does tradition play in the novel? Who in Honeyborne is tradition important to and in which ways?
10. “Indeed, I almost feel able to attend Sophy’s next workshop on biodynamic composting. But not quite. Not yet. You can take the girl away from Notting Hill . . .” (page 205). By the end of the book, to what degree has Mimi acclimated to country living?
11. After Pierre becomes a success in the art world, Rose says, “I realize, now, that I love Pierre very deeply” (page 258). Is she saying this only because Pierre is finally contributing financially? Do they truly love each other?
12. By the end of the novel, which characters do you believe are “in a good place”?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Can’t get enough of Rachel Johnson’s witty and entertaining characters? Want to know about Mimi’s life back in London? Then check out Johnson’s first novel, Notting Hell
2. After reading In a Good Place, are you now an expert on all things British? A very helpful (and humorous) glossary is included, so why not quiz one another about “M&S,” “Waitrose,” and other brand names and personalities you might not have known about before reading the novel.
3. The eco-village Spodden’s Hatch plays an important role in the novel. To better understand this kind of community, do research on similar places and share photos with the group.
4. To read all about Rachel Johnson, find out what it’s like to go on a book tour, or even send her a note, visit her official website: http://www.racheljohnson.co.uk/
A Conversation with Rachel Johnson
You live in England, and the novel is set there. What challenges existed in making In a Good Place accessible to readers worldwide?
To be brutal, I didn’t set out to try to make it “accessible.” I just tried as best I could to render accurately the experience and pre-credit-crunchy concerns of a certain, high-toned middle-class milieu: people who had largely left town for the green fields and slower pace of the rural idyll, only to find that the canvas for competition had merely . . . got bigger. Think tweedy types hunting, shooting, and fishing colliding with Alice Waters on food and local produce and Martha Stewart on pickles and preserves and you have about the size of it. So, yes, the setting is very English and yet, as with Notting Hell, all societies have their elites, and this applies to the ritzy areas of the countryside too. (In the UK, the well-heeled counties, like Dorset, Devon, Wiltshire, Hampshire, and so on are called the Shires, and the book was published under the title Shire Hell. Just in case you thought, looking at Amazon, that I’ve managed three books in three years. Wish I had, but no.) I think everyone can recognize the one-upmanship and the competition that go on wherever you are, especially among groups where the women don’t have to hold down office jobs and instead get in a total snit about who won the longest carrot contest or took first prize for summer chutney in the August fête.
Why did you decide to have two narrators, Mimi and Rose, share their perspectives in alternating chapters? Was it difficult to maintain a consistent flow with two such different women narrating?
I have a really short attention span, and this helped me along to vary the pace and the outlook. I used the same device in Notting Hell, and I hope it worked here. You have to be very careful using the first person and varying the narration, obviously, because you really don’t want the reader thinking at any point, “Whose the hell head I am in here?” It should be obvious. Should be, I stress . . .
Do you relate the most to Mimi, Rose, or another character? Did some of your own friends or acquaintances inspire anyone in the novel?
I’ve said it before, and I don’t mind admitting it again. My heroine, the curly-headed, scone-loving Mimi, is very much after my own heart (that’s why her name sounds the same as me-me). As for the other characters, UK newspapers have had some fun trying to link my cast to real people. Some minor characters are based on folks I know, but not in any serious way. Not so serious as they would sue, anyway. When you start to write you realize how important it is that characters are strong and recognizable and themselves. Real people are too subtle. It’s like you have to put pancake makeup on someone, otherwise she fades out under the bleaching glare of studio lights. They need to have real presence and stand out on the page.
Before becoming an acclaimed author, you were already a well-known journalist. What prompted you to write novels? Do you find one form of writing more enjoyable than the other?
Tough one. I love writing journalism because it’s all over in two hours and comes straight off the top of the head. Writing novels is soooooo much harder. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Even harder than delivering my first baby whose head size was in the ninety-ninth percentile and who was in posterior position (since you asked, a thirty-six-hour-labor followed by forceps followed by surgery). And another thing—unlike childbirth, it never gets any easier. You just know how hard it’s going to be for the next two years of your life with ever more certainty each time.
Like several of your characters, you’re a mother with a busy work schedule. How do you balance your time? What advice can you offer other working mothers?
There’s only one thing I can say here. Don’t worry about never having time to write. Just write what you can in the time you do have and give yourself a big clap on the back, followed by a double latte and a blueberry muffin. You’ve done well. P.S. I am writing this now amid the litter of takeout Thai food in pajamas while my daughter is Facebooking instead of completing her history project and the dog is licking out the containers. Today I wrote a thousand words of my new novel in the London Library, interviewed a source over a sandwich in Piccadilly at lunch, saw my disabled mother for tea, and then walked the dog and ordered the dinner and the week’s groceries. It’s 8:31 p.m., and I still have to write my column for the Evening Standard. And P.P.S. I’ve had two glasses of pinot grigio. I needed it. I really needed it.
Mimi has conflicted feelings about leaving London for life in the countryside. You yourself divide your time between Notting Hill, London, and Exmoor, Somerset. Where do you prefer to live?
My favorite question! I think about this all the time. I fantasize that I would be happy living in the depths of a river valley minus central heating and hundreds of miles from the nearest vodkatini, but the truth is, I am spoiled, and I love and need and relish both. Both town and country. I love the London life (see Thai takeout in vignette, above) but I am most happy sitting by the fire in my Wellington boots, listening to my collection of Miles Davis LPs, with a big book in one hand and the other patting my dog, Coco. London is very stressful. But after six weeks in Exmoor, I pine for the pollution and noise and, above all, the easy availability of the strong skinny latte.
So many of your female characters are competitive with one another. Do they have true friendships?
Miaow! Course they do. English people are famous for never speaking out but only saying what they really feel about you behind your back. Americans believe the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. I like exploring those, er, differences in national snippiness.
Several of your characters have had extramarital affairs. Why did you make that decision?
Because it’s true to life and stuff has to happen in fiction. It doesn’t reflect any amorality or casual approach to the sanctity of the wedding vows on my part, in case you were wondering.
Based on the feedback you’ve received, do American audiences react differently to this topic than British ones?
American audiences tend to be a little bit more Puritan judgmental. Hope that doesn’t offend anyone . . .
Have you ever spent time in an eco-village like Spodden’s Hatch?
Yes. I spent a day or so in a place exactly like Spodden’s Hatch. Called Tinker’s Bubble in Somerset.
In the second and third parts of the book, there are several time shifts. Why did you employ this storytelling device?
Because I was trying to be clever and mix it up a little, I suppose. Showing off?
Besides your editor, whom do you first allow to read your work?
Only my editors at Touchstone Fireside and Penguin! I send the work to my agent, Peter Straus in London, and Melanie Jackson in New York, too, and value every word of their advice. My husband wants to be a reader, but I always tell him, Not until it’s in hard (or soft) cover, babe.
Have you ever belonged to a book club? If so, did you enjoy the experience?
Can readers expect to hear more from Mimi and Rose in the future?
Not immediately . . . I’m deep in another project. But I don’t ever rule it out. I’d love to see how they’re getting on. And Clare . . . and Si . . . and Ralph, too.