12/05/2005

Promises to Keep

This is the twelfth novel by Alexandra Raife, who has become one of my favourite modern authors of family sagas. She bases her books primarily or partly in a small town in Scotland, meaning that while each is complete in itself, characters tend to recur in minor roles. I quite like this although I tend to forget who most of them are in between reading her books... one day I'll start again with the first and keep notes of who is who!

This novel is about Miranda and Ian, best friends in childhood and sweethearts in their teens, who get married on impulse and then find themselves, still at college, expecting a baby. Miranda was an only child and has been quite spoilt all her life, and although she's generous and good-hearted, she's totally unprepared for motherhood. She wants to enjoy life as Ian does, so when the baby turns out to be unappealing, grumpy and impossible to please, Miranda becomes tired, irritable and frequently angry. Ian - who is barely more mature than she - tries to help, but before long is driven away by Miranda's constant (and often unfair) accusations.

The book then charts Miranda's life as a single mother with her daughter Alexy, who becomes more and more unlikeable as she grows up. Miranda finds a job, makes friends, meets another man, suffers various stresses and strains, and never really succeeds in communicating with her daughter. Ian is always at the back of her mind but whenever they meet, arguments erupt and they end up hurting each other. Neither is willing to take any blame for their problems, past and present, and eventually Ian gives up visiting.

I enjoyed the book very much; Alexandra Raife has a great writing style that - as they critics say - is reminiscent at times of Rosamunde Pilcher. Her main characters are very believable and sympathetic, and most of the minor ones fill their roles to admiration, even though I was sometimes a little bewildered at references to people from other books. I'm sure that when I re-read them and have them more firmly placed in my mind I shall be glad to hear what happens to them later on, but for somebody like me who reads many other books in between, or for someone picking this up without having read Raife's previous novels, these references can seem rather pointless and irritating.

That's a very minor quibble; my more serious one is that the author seems to believe strongly in strict discipline, private education, and preferably boarding school for children whenever possible. Some of Alexy's problems are put down to having an all-encompassing relationship with Miranda as a small child; while this might possibly lead to clinginess and a child reluctant to become independent, there's no way it could lead to the coldness and arrogance that this unfortunate child develops.

I felt Alexy was by far the weakest character of the book - she simply has no redeeming features at all. She's amoral, supercilious, manipulative, and totally selfish. Possibly Miranda's youth and initial dislike of her daughter could have affected her negatively, but not to such a dramatic extent. Nor could Ian's leaving when she was a toddler, and certainly not Miranda's admittedly over-protective love. Ian's father and one of his aunts are also grumpy, bad-tempered people but they are far more believable than Alexy, with some underlying humour (albeit well-hidden), an ability to relate to other people, and a strong family loyalty.

I suppose it's a mark of a cleverly-written book that I found Alexy's character so annoying; I wanted to find the author and explain to her that mass education and boarding schools are really not the answer to making children pleasant and co-operative. A childhood without abuse or neglect, and with a mother's constant love and attention cannot lead to such an appalling person as Alexy becomes. Possibly Alexandra Raife has never had children of her own, or sent them off to school at eight. She would be better sticking to her excellent adult characters and not attempting to create children.

Still, this book had me gripped and I spent most of this morning finishing it. It was character-driven, with an underlying romance, and had the bonus of giving plenty to think about with the unforgiveness and bitterness that haunted Amanda for so many years.

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