The Group. Some think the funniness is unintentional and I would love to, since I really loathe Mary Mc & am jealous. But I fear not…It’s full of such gems & a description of the sexual act which makes you gasp for breath with laughing…Oh it’s too lovely. – Nancy Mitford in a letter to Raymond Mortimer, January 1966.
Spare Brides the latest novel by the Sunday Times bestselling author Adele Parks reminded me of Mary McCarthy’s The Group, a novel which Nancy Mitford loathed to admit she adored. Some reviews on Amazon compare the characters and the plot to a sort of Bright Young Things version of Sex and the City, others were astonished at the author’s use of graphic sex scenes in the latter sections of the book. Some complained they wished it had been more like Jane Austen. I adored it, but then again I do love a bit of camp – and that is not meant as an insult to Adele Parks’ writing.
The story begins in 1920 with four close friends ringing in the new year together. Ava, is part of the new money set who is confident and deemed modern in her views. This is quickly related when Ava sleeps with a married man, who wants to divorce his wife for her, but she simply states: ‘Now, darling, do be quiet. I want to get some sleep.’ Two of the women, Sarah and Bea, are uncomplicated, one has lost her husband in war, and the latter, we are told is ungainly and ‘big boned’ – therefore unattractive and as such is single. Lydia is the wife of an earl who had a desk job during the war, which she believes has cursed them given his lack of sacrifice for his country, and the outcome of this curse is her inability to give him an heir. So far, quite whimsy and verging on chick lit. (Still not complaining!)
Parks fills the earlier section of the book with wonderful descriptions of their palatial houses in the countryside and at Eaton Square and of their beautiful clothes, especially Ava and Lydia’s wardrobes, which are very modern with its satin and lace and Parisian underwear. All part of snaring, and keeping a man, as Ava warns Bea who still wears a corset: ‘For God’s sake, Beatrice, you have to ditch the whalebone corsets. Men won’t dance with you if they can’t feel you. Buy an elastic girdle. How many times do I have to tell you?’ It’s all a distraction from the coarseness of the middle section of the book, which is where Parks exerts her real talent for writing…
Bored and beautiful Lydia embarks on an affair, quite by chance, with a dashing (married but estranged from his wife) sergeant named Edgar. He’s traumatized by war, and uses colourful language, of which Parks incorporates into the prose with the masterful effect of shocking the reader as it contrasts heavily with her genteel images of delicate clothing and stylish salons. F this and F that is dotted throughout the narrative, even delicate Lydia picks up a few four lettered words which she does not hesitate to use in front of her shocked friends. The friends loathe this new sergeant, and poke fun at his shabby dwellings (a boarding house in a bad part of town) and his lack of eloquence. And, as such cautionary tales go, Lydia who was unable to conceive a child with her husband, the earl, becomes pregnant with Edgar’s baby. The drama intensifies!
Her friends are quite shocked. Sarah puts the detectives on Edgar and, as we learn towards the end when he suddenly vanishes, pays him off. But Lydia isn’t one to let a sleeping dog lie; she tracks him down to the docks and meets him for tea. It’s all rather tense, and we think Lydia’s going to let Edgar go (he’s off to Australia) and return home to her stately pile to resume of her life as a countess and let her husband raise the baby as his own, as he gallantly told her, any child born to her whilst she’s married to him would also be his -besides, it might be a girl and as we know, girls are of no real importance. It’s all heading in that direction when, suddenly, her massive coat slips open and Edgar sees that she is pregnant. “‘So the Earl will have his heir,’ Edgar commented. He tried not to let the bitterness shatter his voice. He understood. At last, he understood it all. She was not his. She never had been.”
Just as Edgar is about to board the ship, with thoughts of he beloved Lydia swirling in his mind, she emerges from the crowd. “‘You came back,’ he whispered into her hair.’” Yes, she tells him. He doesn’t board the ship, instead they exchange a few cryptic words: ‘There’s no going back’, ‘I don’t want to go back.’ And, although we’re uncertain of where they’ll go and what she’ll do as a countess, still married to an Earl and pregnant with another (married) man’s child, we’re told with an air of confidence: ‘They held one another tightly. They held their futures.’
I adored this book!