The Tennis Party (by Madeleine Wickham)

I came late to the ‘chick-lit’ style of light women’s fiction; I was happy to discover that while some of it is undoubtedly vulgar and fluffy, there are also some intelligent and humorous books of this genre, some of them surprisingly thought-provoking. I was particularly pleased to discover that Sophie Kinsella, best known for her ‘Shopaholic’ series, is an extremely good writer with clever plots, good characterisation (albeit caricatured), and some humour which, on occasion, makes me chuckle out loud.

In a charity shop a few months ago I spotted this book, which said that it was by Sophie Kinsella writing as Madeleine Wickham. It turns out that the latter is the author’s real name, and she chose the better-known pseudonym for her lighter, more amusing books. I picked ‘The Tennis Party’ up out of curiosity, and read it recently.

The story essentially takes place over a weekend in the summer. The wealthy entrepreneur Patrick and his not-so-upwardly mobile wife Caroline are hosting three couples for a sort of house party. Ostensibly they are having a tennis tournament, but it’s also clear that they want to show off their luxurious home and grounds. Patrick, who is always eager to make yet more money, has some ulterior motives too...

The guests are quite a mixed bunch. Charles is an old friend, but his new wife Cressida is something of an unknown quantity, and quite a snob. Don and his daughter Valerie are competitive and rather outspoken. And then there are Stephen and Annie, friends from their old neighbourhood, who live a much simpler life and struggle financially.

Patrick and Caroline have a horse-mad and rather bossy daughter Georgina, who is eleven. Stephen and Annie have two children: Nicola, who is a bit younger than Georgina, and who has a physical disability, and Toby her younger brother. Charles and Cressida have twins who are toddlers, and a nanny who looks after them.

The book is really about the ways these different people interact, and the characterisation is good, on the whole. I liked Stephen and Annie very much, and became quite fond of the two young girls, who are quite good friends. Caroline is likeable enough too, although she smokes and uses bad language regularly, but Patrick is smarmy, Don and Valerie extremely annoying, and Charles something of a jerk.

The tennis tournaments happen as planned and the children - organised by Georgina - stage a play. Charles’ ex-wife Ella appears, and adds a little spice to the scene, and there are many tensions, exacerbated by the closeness imposed on these rather different and somewhat prickly couples over the course of the weekend.

There’s really not much plot. It’s a study in relationships, infidelities, greed, manipulation... done in a fairly light-hearted way, but I kept wondering when the story was going to start. Most of the characters were not interesting enough for me to care what happened to them, and the lifestyle was so far removed from anything I’ve ever experienced that I couldn’t really empathise much with anyone. Having said that, the writing was good, the conversations believable, and the ending satisfying enough. I just wasn’t quite sure what the point of it all was.

I was also uncomfortable with the vast amount of bad language, and bored with the financial aspects. There are some intimate scenes too, which, while not very explicit, stray a little too far in that direction for my tastes.

All in all, I thought this rather average - in future I’ll stick to the books written under Sophie Kinsella rather than Madeleine Wickham.

'The Tennis Party' is available in Kindle form on both sites of the Atlantic, as well as paperback in the UK, and is often found second-hand.

Review copyright Sue's Book Reviews, 26th July 2013

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