Small Pleasures – Clare Chambers

Published by: Hodder & Stoughton
Pages: 368
Date released: 29/04/2021
Date read: 03/05/2021

1957, south-east suburbs of London.

Jean Swinney is a feature writer on a local paper, disappointed in love and – on the brink of forty – living a limited existence with her truculent mother: a small life from which there is no likelihood of escape.

When a young Swiss woman, Gretchen Tilbury, contacts the paper to claim that her daughter is the result of a virgin birth, it is down to Jean to discover whether she is a miracle or a fraud. But the more Jean investigates, the more her life becomes strangely (and not unpleasantly) intertwined with that of the Tilburys: Gretchen is now a friend, and her quirky and charming daughter Margaret a sort of surrogate child. And Jean doesn’t mean to fall in love with Gretchen’s husband, Howard, but Howard surprises her with his dry wit, his intelligence, and his kindness – and when she does fall, she falls hard.

But he is married, and to her friend – who is also the subject of the story she is researching for the newspaper, a story that increasingly seems to be causing dark ripples across all their lives. And yet Jean cannot bring herself to discard the chance of finally having a taste of happiness…

But there will be a price to pay, and it will be unbearable.

Ooh it didn’t take me long to finish this once I’d started. I’d seen so many reviews of it and whilst I didn’t actually have any idea what it was about, I bought it anyway. And even though I went in blind, I still had a feeling that it wasn’t anything like I expected.

It follows journalist Jean, who decides to run a story on Gretchen, a young woman who fully believes her daughter is a product of a virgin birth. What starts off as simply and assignment ends up changing all of their lives – some for the better and some for the worse. It’s a story partly influenced by fact and partly influenced by imagination, seamlessly married together. It is truthful and wondrous and fascinating and entertaining.

It was longlisted for the 2021 Women’s Prize for Fiction award, and having finished it, I’m quite astounded to find it wasn’t even shortlisted, let alone win the deserving award. It is a book unlike anything I’ve ever read and delivers a shocking twist to close the narrative.

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