23/05/2006

A Price for Everything (by Mary Sheepshanks)

'A Price for Everything' was the first novel by Mary Sheepshanks, and it's now out of print but widely available second-hand. I found it, on the whole, an enjoyable read. The heroine, Sonia (Lady Duntan) finds herself struggling to cope with the huge family home which she loves - and which is in need of an enormous amount of restoration.

As the novel opens, she is trying to find ways of raising money to make the home habitable, and her husband Archie is convinced they would be better off living in another, smaller house on the estate. This causes tension, which is not eased when Archie's mother and young half-sister come to stay unexpectedly, along with a very strange 'monk' from a small religious sect.

I found Sonia very believable, and could empathise with her through most of the book. She loves her four children and her husband, but often finds herself snapping at them. She finds it hard to relate deeply to anybody, or to talk with Archie about things that are important to her. She needs time to herself - and is, in a small way, an artist.

Archie is a bit more predictable, and the children are slightly caricatured, other than the delightful Birdie, who at about six years old is enormously sensitive to all that goes on, full of anxieties and fears. Other less important characters are also rather typecast and flat, but that doesn't really matter - they are easily distinguishable, and fulfil their roles reasonably well.

The book is well-written, the plot moves at the right sort of pace, the characterisations made me care (at least about Sonia and Birdie) and the ending was satisfying in a thought-provoking way. So on the whole, I thought it a good book.

One (perhaps minor) gripe is the way the church is portrayed. Not the strange monk, from a dubious sect, but the local Vicar who's treated as a figure of fun. The congregation seem to consist either of peculiar people who don't belong anywhere, or traditionalists (like the Dunsan family) who attend because they've always done so, as a matter of duty. The Vicar's attempts at starting a prayer group is written as a comedy scene, although it was rather sad than humorous, and he's shown to be rather a hypocrite in many ways. No doubt there are vicars like this, but their part in the book did not seem to add to the story in any way, and it was sad to see an otherwise excellent plot spoilt with these vain attempts at humour.

The other thing I found a bit objectionable was that Polly - Sonia's oldest daughter - has a friend with a very 'modern' mother who discusses sex with her in detail. So mealtimes are often punctuated by Polly announcing something else which she has learned, and asking embarrassing questions of her parents. Perhaps this too was supposed to be amusing, but I didn't find it so. It wasn't part of the plot, it didn't enhance any of the characters, it made Polly look rather stupid and attention-seeking, and it could easily have been left out.

Nonetheless, despite these things, I did mostly enjoy the book. The author's style is generally very good, conversations mostly realistic, and it flows well.

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