Author: Joan Lingard
Details: (c) Joan Lingard 1989; Pub 1990 Pan Books; ISBN 0-330-31193-X
Verdict: The women's house is a fairly original light character piece.
Reasons for reading it: I really like Lingard's YA books; I don't think her adult writing quite lives up to that standard, but she's still worth reading.
How it came into my hands: A charity shop somewhere, I think probably Cambridge.
I really enjoyed the characterization in The Women's House. It is also that rare thing, a novel obviously marketed at the light romance reading crowd, but where friendship is more central than the romance elements. I particularly appreciate the fact that the central characters are a family who are not related by blood or sex. The jeopardy comes from their fight to keep their house after the death of Evangeline's partner, in a world where nobody really takes their claim seriously and a powerful property developer is trying to drive them out so he can use the land for a casino.
Lingard writes senstively and with a lot of realism about growing old. Anna is the kind of person who is very rarely a main character: a middle aged woman who is not particularly beautiful or particularly feisty, and not anybody's wife or mother. And Holly, the troubled teenager, is just the sort of character that Lingard handles superlatively well. I really appreciated the portrait of someone who is recovering from a horrendously abusive childhood, but who is a three-dimensional person with normal interests rather than an excuse for the author to hammer home just how tragic and horrible her past was (and yet not written as if she'd swallowed some magic fairy dust to stop her abuse from having any effect on her). One of the major characters happens to be gay, and there are a couple of other gay people mentioned in the book, but that's not what the book is about, it's a minor detail of character background.
Because the characterization is so good, I really cared about the fate of the three women and whether they get to keep their house. The book takes a realistic view of poverty and marginalization, so that the reader doesn't have any confidence that things with turn out right for those protected by the magic viewpoint character halo. In fact, the dramatic ending came as a real surprise to me, and allowed room for a resolution which was positive but without being implausibly happy-ever-after.
Generally, this is a quiet, fairly forgettable sort of book, though a particularly well written example of what it is. I think its existence points up just how rare it is for these sorts of people to be written about at all, or if they are mentioned for them to be people rather than Tragic Cases. When it does so many things well, it's a pity that the book is let down by some really awful stereotypical portraits of the Italian characters; I don't mind that they are the villains of the piece because Italians can be evil just like anyone else, but they are really cheesy soap opera Italians. The other thing that is slightly annoying is that the presentation of contrasts between people and scenes feels rather conscious sometimes.