Book Club member reviews: A Grand Old Time

By Rebecca Masterman, Spring Chicken Book Club member

Since losing her husband, Jim, seventy-five year old Evie Gallagher has lived at Sheldon Lodge, a care home for the elderly. After a routine, excruciating visit from her son and his wife, she walks out, re-invents herself and rediscovers her joy for living, but then, because the tagline on the cover suggests this is “Brilliantly funny, emotional and uplifting!” you wouldn’t expect anything else, would you?

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So, whilst this is not my preferred genre, I was hoping for some humour if not the laugh out loud type then at least a little chortle or two, perhaps some dry wit and, of course, a happy ending.

After a handful of chapters, it occurred to me that this book is written in the style of a short story which one might read in a magazine in the dentist’s waiting room, something quick and easy, not too deep, just a little character insight and no author observation. It is simply a chronologically written story in the “then it was now” style. After a couple more chapters I read the blurb about the author, Judy Leigh, and discovered she has indeed written several stories for magazines and this is her first novel. So, as an easy going, not too taxing, extended magazine story to pack for a holiday, this will please many. You can pick it up and put it down between sips of something cool by the pool and never lose the thread. The chapters are short which always helps when needing a break to attract the waiter! (I also learnt she is a fellow vegan and will be looking up her vegan blog online.)

As much as possible, I try, always, to look at things from all points of view. Just because something is not to my taste, does not mean it’s not good and others will not love it. Wagner sets my teeth on edge but I do marvel at his skill and I know people who cannot get through the day without hearing his work. But for me, Judy Leigh is no Wagner and a grand old time I did not have.

I could never put together enough sentences to produce a novel which is why I don’t write and I admire anyone who has the patience to do so. But I do read so I feel I have some qualification in expressing an opinion and this book is just not for me. I found it dull and predictable, without enough humour or style to compensate. At the beginning of each chapter I knew exactly where it was leading. I can honestly say there was not a single surprise in the entire book. The improbability of the story (somehow it doesn’t seem complex enough to be a plot) was too ridiculous for me…not so much the getting from the start to the finish, but the “lucky that happened” moments on the way.

For some, as a feel good distraction it could work and if you do like this genre, don’t dismiss it. For me, I kept thinking I was wasting valuable reading time but as I say, not my preferred genre and it has not converted me.

 

By Sarah Tavenner, Spring Chicken Book Club member

Some people would have us believe that when women reach a certain age they should grow old quietly and, if not exactly gracefully, then at least without making a fuss and a nuisance of themselves. Seventy five is obviously not the age for a well behaved Irish widow to unexpectedly abandon a safe comfortable routine in a dull Dublin retirement home and embark on an impromptu adventure of a lifetime, let alone without letting her family know where she has gone or what she is doing but then Evie Gallagher isn’t quite the quiet old lady that some people think she ought to be.

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This book is a witty page turner, Judy Leigh is gentle and passionate in her storytelling and the descriptions of Evie’s serendiptic travels are very evocative. I found myself envious of her more than once and hoping that I have the nerve to follow in her footsteps when I reach her age. There were beautiful descriptions of everyday things and scenes I recognised from living in France, there were also a few minor details that niggled me but not enough to ruin the flow of the tale.
Initially, I thought some of the characters were a little two dimensional. Mrs Lofthouse, who runs the rest home Sheldon Lodge seems almost a caricature and Evie’s son Brendan and his wife seemed simple depictions of a stereotypical unhappy marriage between a prematurely aging downtrodden man and his unpleasant bossy dissatisfied wife, but their characters developed well through the novel as their relationship jolted and bumped its way through France in pursuit of the ever elusive Evie. Throughout the book, as we learn more about their pasts the characters seem to gain confidence and become more believable. As the plot unravels it begins to moves from a tale of Evies geographical travels and more about the emotional journey,
The message behind the humour is a good one for all of us, we must learn to take chances and let go, finding our own happiness in the present no matter what the past has been. As wise and not so old Evie learns, there is always a chance of ” Bonheur” if only we are willing to take chances and live in the present.

 

By Marilyn Anne Newton, Spring Chicken Book Club member

When I am an old woman I shall have my hair dyed blonde,
Wear skinny jeans, a green leather jacket
With a red hat which doesn’t go, and tell the Doctor to go ‘Shite’
And I shall spend my pension on an aqua blue camper van and a ticket to Roscoff where I will drink brandy and red wine and
Read Bronte, De Beauvoir and Camus.
I shall sit down on the pavement when I’m tired
And gobble up Moules Mariniere
And make up for the sobriety of my youth.

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I shall go out barefoot in the rain
And find beautiful pebbles on a glorious French beach
And learn to love.
You can wear terrible shirts and grow more fat
And eat three pounds of sausages at a go
Or only bread and pickle for a week
And hoard pens and pencils and beermats and things in boxes.
For now we must have clothes that keep us dry
And pay our rent and not swear in the street
And set a good example for the children.
We must have friends to dinner and read the papers.
So maybe I ought to plan a little now?
So people who know me are not too shocked and surprised
When suddenly I am not old and start to live!
(with sincere apologies to Jenny Joseph!)

Oh! What a jolly jape is ‘A Grand Old Time Life Begins at 75’: Evie – the grand old dame of this escapade – is clearly an ideal muse for Alan Bennett (if only she could adopt a Yorkshire tongue) and I half expected good old Brian Rix and Elspet Gray to appear at any moment, I offer my apologies for showing my age! In a similar vein to Bennett, Leigh captures the very ordinariness of Englishness while subtly introducing her readers to Evie’s inner turmoil and emotional turbulence and to the essence of family life which so often can be either fractious or awkwardly silent. We cheer when Evie – facing a lonely vista of impending (even) older age and eventual final demise, chooses an alternative future unaware of the detours, diversions and ultimate destination she will encounter. If we believe in fate then it might be said the Ms Leigh has simply allowed Evie to reach her own destiny –Oh What Joy. However, do not be fooled for Evie’s adventure is not without mishaps. She is not aware that she is in fact being stalked by Brendan and similarly it could be said that she is being stalked by an increasingly fragile marriage and by his unreciprocated fantasies for a lithe and tanned young Miss. True to say you will not be challenged intellectually by ‘A Grand Old Time’ but as promises of Summer are winking at us this will prove to be a hit as the sunbeds appear. Evie escapes her own Annus Horribilis on an adventure across France; finding her ultimate passion (is it permissible to put the suggestion of lust into the needs and desires of a gentle lady of Evie’s age!). Finally making a life changing resolution with what we truly hope will have an equally positive impact on the future of Branden and Moira. Thank you Judy Leigh for a thoroughly entertaining and spirit lifting tale.

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