Sweet & sour……….

I have just finished a couple of books recommended to me by one of our customers – they were SO good I have made sure we have copies in stock. Sharp and well-observed social comedies set just as the youth-quake of the 1960s was about to hit and well-bred gals of a certain class would have more opportunities and dangers than ever before.
The Women in Black by Madeleine St John (a contemporary, at Sydney University, of Clive James, Germaine Greer and Bruce Beresford’s) is a wonderful tale, Austen-ish in its wit and clever observation of its characters. Set in 1960, written in 1993, it is the tale of Lisa, the new Sale Assistant (Temporary) in Ladies Cocktail Frocks at the famous Sydney institution., the F.G. Goode (read David Jones) department store. Every morning when the women arrive, they change into their black uniforms. Lisa, working over the summer, waiting to see if her exams are good enough for her to go to university, is drawn into the worlds of the other saleswomen of Ladies Frocks and even attracts the attention of the glamorous and frightening Magda, a suspiciously regarded (by the ‘real’ Aussies) continental refugee who presides over the greater glories of Model Gowns. Sharp, biting and just delightful, this is a quick read – Hilary Mantel called it “a pocket masterpiece. A jewel“.
The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets by Eva Rice is set in England in the 1950s, and was first published in 2005. It too is delightful and funny, with an edge of snobby nastiness and an undercurrent of the uncertainty of change that modern life entails – rock and roll is about to disturb the dreaming home counties. Penelope, our heroine, wants to fall in love, save her petulant beautiful mother and their enormous falling-down house, make some money and make her brother Inigo pay attention to all this, rather than the new phenom, Elvis Presley.
This was an amusing read but The Women in Black is the best of the two I think, it is extraordinarily humane, the various lives of the saleswomen are clearly dissected but there is an odd compassion and dignity to the observations of these women who are all just doing the best they can in a world with few choices for them. The hinted-at horrors that Magda survived in WWII, the on-the-shelf loneliness and not-giving-up brightness of Miss Baines, the bewildered, marriage-mazed Mrs Williams (still with no baby, just think!), with just a few years on Lisa, they didn’t have the choices she now does – although she might have to convince her Dad that university is a good option for a girl. You fall a little for each of them, wanting only the best for them, and It is exciting and very satisfying to see them grab the opportunities that this one summer throws at them all. I think I shall re-read this elegant novel every couple of years, and I can think of so many people who I’ll give it to!

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