One Stop Shop

Sophie Kinsella's "Confessions of a Shopaholic"

Sophie Kinsella’s “Confessions of a Shopaholic”

I have to be honest: I started off absolutely hating Sophie Kinsella’s Confessions of a Shopaholic, set in my home county of Surrey. Don’t get me wrong, the characters are well-developed, the tone is amusing and Kinsella writes engagingly…but my goodness how the sheer trait of shopaholism infuriates me.

Rebecca Bloomwood is a financial journalist with a serious money-spending addiction. The irony is obvious: she advises other people how to invest their cash, whilst being unable to walk past a single shop without popping in to spend a quick £300 on real tat. Money that, incidentally, she doesn’t have. But as her frightening debts stack up and pressure from her lenders mounts, Becky simply buries her head deeper and deeper in the sand. Moreover, her job bores her and she feels the constant threat of being exposed as a fraudulent, time-wasting know-nothing; a woman who really doesn’t have a clue about investments or hedgefunds or insurance or any other financial scheme she writes about.

High Street Kensington tube station - commuter Rebecca's gateway to work...and shopping.

High Street Kensington tube station – commuter Rebecca’s gateway to work…and shopping.

It’s all a bit of a disaster for Becky, and the first half of the novel is almost unbearable to read as we witness the protagonist wreaking havoc in her own life. JUST STOP SPENDING MONEY, I wanted to scream, almost ripping the book apart at the spine in frustration with her lack of self-control. In this regard I did not feel any affinity with Rebecca, being myself generally of a money-saving disposition (except for books and food and wine and travel…) Meaningless retail therapy doesn’t rank highly on my list of priorities in life.

However, as hard as I tried to resist it, by the last third of the novel when she starts to turn her life around and develop her journalistic and relationship talents, my own frustration shifted to sympathy; Rebecca’s most irritating habits became instead comically cringeworthy. Most significantly, I suppose, even days after I finished the book I caught myself thinking over it again, trying to recalculate my initial feelings towards it based on the, frankly, very good ending. To cut a long story short, Kinsella eventually salvaged my esteem: overall, the novel ranks at 3/5 stars.

Kingston-upon-Thames' Bentalls Centre shopping complex

Kingston-upon-Thames’ Bentalls Centre shopping complex

As for its Surrey setting…well, Rebecca and her parents may have lived in and frequented Surrey’s towns occasionally – I was particularly excited by the reference to my closest shopping centre with the words “my mum thinks that if you can’t buy it at Bentalls of Kingston, you don’t need it” (14) – but most of the novel was in fact spent on the streets of London, either in shops (and lots of them) or commuting to the office of Successful Savings magazine.

Was this a cop-out? A let-down? Well, no.

From personal experience I do in fact consider this to be highly representative of the Surrey lifestyle: the county hardly has any identity of its own, but rather clings to/revolves around London. Being prime commuter territory, Surrey and the boroughs of Greater London wrestle with each other for precedence; addresses change at the drop of a hat depending on the latest governmental budget or tourist trend. You wouldn’t believe the number of times I catch myself and my old local school friends telling new acquaintances that we’re ‘from London’ rather than Surbiton or Esher or Guilford. This is most often in an effort to simplify matters – after all, who cares about Surrey? What does anyone actually know about Surrey? It has no significance, except for its proximity to the bright lights of London. No one would travel to Surrey as a tourist – even if they visit Hampton Court Palace, it’s because they think it’s one of the ‘London Sights’ (it’s in East Molesey, people). It’s astounding, really; Surrey is both dependent on London and, in terms of its own (non-existent) unique identity, absolutely crippled by it.

Next time I’ll be reviewing Dorothy Koomson’s The Ice Cream Girls. I intentionally avoided the recent TV adaptation in order to read the book first, so I hope it’s worth it!

 

KINSELLA, Sophie. Confessions of a Shopaholic. New York: Bantam Dell, 2003.

Featured Image: Oxford Street, London – one of Rebecca’s favourite shopping haunts.

http://www.dreamstime.com/royalty-free-stock-image-shopping-time-oxford-street-london-sep-view-september-major-road-west-end-uk-europes-image31405646

Stuck

Margaret Drabble's A Peppered Moth

Margaret Drabble’s A Peppered Moth

I have an admission to make: sometimes, however unfortunately, life gets in the way of a good book. This week, I would have found it difficult to get through the simplest of storybooks, let alone one as seemingly intelligent as Margaret Drabble’s The Peppered Moth, selected for my South Yorkshire stint. As hard as I’ve tried to concentrate my attentions on it, pre-Christmas events have conspired to prevent me from doing so. Although I have at least read every page, what has gone in one eye has almost completed flown out the other…if you’ll pardon the gruesomeness.

Even so, the fact of its setting is impossible to miss. Much like Kate Atkinson with Behind the Scenes at the Museum (which I found absolutely mind-blowing), Margaret Drabble tells the story of several generations of women through the 20th century, following their difficult and disappointing lives and their unpleasant or unbearable personalities – and yet, in both novels, it is the most dour characters that pique our interest and our sympathy.

Bessie Bawtry is Drabble’s primary antiheroine; she is born on the coal-mining town of Breaseborough, where “repressive” (13) misery lurks around every corner. Zolaesque descriptions of this northern wilderness show it as “brown and grey and navy and nigger and fawn and tan” (55): “This was the coal belt, and coal was its bed and being. Coal seamed the earth, coal darkened the daytime air, coal reddened the night skies.” (5). The very place pollutes, plagues and cripples its inhabitants with hard work and the results of dust inhalation, bringing “respiratory diseases” (7) and other, unnamed strife.

Drabble

Drabble

“The very earth was mined. Beneath the streets, a mile down, toiled the employees of Bednerby Main, in dark tunnels supported by wooden pit props. The ground might give at any moment and let one down into the darkness…They were of another race, an underground race. They were the scum of the earth, the dregs of the earth” 15

Suffice it to say, our impression, from beginning to end, from practically the turn of the 20th century to turn of the 21st, is bleak. We are in the heart of “spoiled industrial England” (162), and no matter how many political “Clean Air Acts” are brought in to deal with the dirt, grime and resultant illnesses, nothing can mitigate “the smell of the past [that] lingers and loiters in cushions and soft furnishings” (132).

Bessie hates it. Since childhood, she has considered herself an outsider to this environment, despite the fact “her ancestors had bred upon this spot for eight thousand years” (5); she is “alien”, “a changeling”, “smells offended her, grit irritated her”, “she was of a finer breed” (5). She tries to get out; as an intelligent girl, she gets a place at Cambridge and flees, vowing never to return. She goes back on this promise to herself far too easily, scurrying home to teach in a local school and marry local Joe Barron as soon as she finds herself unsupported. “So,” the narrator sighs at this point, “we cast ourselves in castes, even when society fails to provide them” (28). Upon marrying and having two children, the family move “to another world. A million light years away, all the way to Surrey. That’s in the south of England, you know” (149). Once again Bessie gets the chance to disentangle herself from her detested roots, to glory in her life in “tame and suburban Surrey” (191), but yet again she fails to do so; she goes back to Breaseborough when she hears of her mother’s illness, despite her fear that she will be “entomb[ed]” (200) there too.

Old Roundwood Colliery from early 1900s, Ossett, West Yorkshire

Old Roundwood Colliery from early 1900s, Ossett, West Yorkshire

The novel continues in such a vein with Bessie slowly learning that “she cannot conquer place” (79) or the ties her ancestors have on her. Her dependence on what she hates about herself dominates her character. It is fascinating that in a time of great change and excitement and political freedom, when everything was opening up and “restlessness was sweeping around the glove like influenza” (50) and “machinery had begun to click and whizz, and in the wake of the industrial revolution came movement, displacement […] global travel” (59) – that in a time such as this, Bessie Bawtry cannot even bear to leave her home: she is “agoraphobic” (172), she “felt safe only in her own nice thirties suburban home, with its pale wood, its cream paint, its nice broad shallow stairs” (172).

As I said, the women in this novel are, at times, unbearable, ruled by selfishness, stern tradition or by suppressed emotions that make them hard and unfeeling. And yet, astonishingly, they are still of interest, still memorable, still mesmerising; the language is quick-witted whilst being symbolic and – for wont of a better word – academic. This is a novel worthy of study, and I wish I’d had more chance to study it. For now (and although my gut tells me to score it higher I haven’t gathered enough evidence to do so), it’ll have to be a fairer 3/5 stars.

Over the next couple of days I’ll be reading (thoroughly, this time!) Late by Louise West. Join me.

DRABBLE, Margaret. The Peppered Moth. London: Penguin, 2001.

Featured Image: A peppered moth.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peppered_moth_evolution