The Secret Life of a Slummy Mummy (by Fiona Neill)

I had not heard of Fiona Neill, although apparently she’s journalist with reputable newspapers, and has written five popular novels. I spotted ‘The Secret Life of a Slummy Mummy’ on a church bookstall not long ago, and thought it looked light and fluffy, just the thing for a relaxing read. The blurb on the back told me that Lucy Sweeney was feeling the strain of motherhood, feeling rather inferior to the ‘yummy mummies’ she encountered in the school yard.

I picked it up to read a few days ago, and was quickly caught up in the story. It’s all written in the first person, mostly present tense, by Lucy who is basically a likeable, ordinary mother of three. She does not see enough of her husband, and she struggles to keep up with the laundry. She’s rather disorganised too, and has a tendency to lose her credit card, and leave random things in the car… but, as with most mothers of young children, she has virtually no time to herself.

I liked Lucy’s children very much, particularly Joe, the sensitive, worried middle child who picks up on adult worries, and snippets of conversations he’s heard, and often gets things wrong. I would like to have seen more of them. Lucy and Tom have a mostly relaxed parenting style which I found reassuring, in contrast to that of the ‘yummy mummies’ whose children take part in a catalogue of after-school activities and are left with au pairs while their parents travel.

Naturally there’s an outside problem, or there wouldn’t be a plot: Lucy finds herself attracted to the sole father who joins in the school run and the group in the playground. It’s clear that this man is attracted to her, too. So there’s an ongoing battle in her mind between enjoyable fantasy and the fear of repercussions, should anything actually happen. The less time she spends with her husband Tom - who is working on a prestigious project, and travels a lot - the more she indulges her imagination.

Had this been the main story, with characters primarily from the school playground, I would have enjoyed it very much. The writing is good, the characterisation of main characters believable, and the caricatured minor ones easily imaginable. There’s some light humour, and if Lucy’s continual forgetfulness and inability to deal with paperwork is exaggerated, it’s entirely understandable. Both Lucy’s and Tom’s parents were strongly caricatured, giving rise to someone of the mildly amusing scenes, and possibly also explaining why Tom is so obsessive, and Lucy so disorganised.

Unfortunately, Lucy’s two best friends are single and promiscuous. One of them (and I never could remember which was which) is having an affair with a married man, the other is living with two friends in a ‘threesome’. Both seem to expect a trail of affairs and one-night-stands, and their conversation is peppered with expletives and references to their experiences. Perhaps I’m sheltered, but I found it impossible to believe in or like either of these two women who apparently come from an entirely different world from the one I know.

So I found myself with very mixed feelings while reading the book. I wanted to know what would happen to Lucy and her family, but felt mostly repelled by her two friends, and could not understand why she would want to spend time with them. She is very much more intelligent and better informed about the world, and her family life is basically happy, if a tad chaotic. The ‘yummy mummy’ in the playground is shallow, but rather more likeable, and even the ‘alpha mum’ more realistic than Lucy’s single friends.

Then there’s a final climactic scene, almost reminiscent of one of Georgette Heyer’s, when most of the main characters end up at the same place, and everyone discovers what everyone else has been up to. Unlike Heyer’s stately mansion settings, however, Lucy and her friends end up at a somewhat seedy hotel. And it's not as neatly or humorously done. The waiter Diego plays the part of one of Heyer’s faithful retainers (usually a butler or housekeeper) and I liked him; but the situations were even more contrived than Heyer’s typical final scenes.

But… I was pleased with the way the story ended, and with the fact that despite a lot of strong hints the author never actually takes us into scenes of intimacy. I liked some of the principles that emerged as Lucy thought through her options at various points. And I appreciated the family-oriented background to the book.

So, on balance, I enjoyed the book. I would have appreciated it far more had it been free of ‘strong’ language on almost every page, and if the two friends (whose names I have forgotten already) were removed, or at least had lesser parts to play. But on the whole it’s a positive story.

Review copyright 2019 Sue's Book Reviews

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