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Janice Gentle Gets Sexy - Mavis Cheek

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Paperback: 336 pages / Publisher: Faber and Faber / New Edition: 3 Mar 2005

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      19.03.2013 10:12
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      A shrewdly observed, funny novel

      Janice Gentle is a successful novelist, an overweight, middle-aged virgin who lives a reclusive and modest life in her Battersea flat. Janice's novels are romantic but sex-free. When Janice finds out that her agent has been dipping into the proceeds of her books to fund a lavish lifestyle, Janice's dream of making enough money to search for her long lost love begins to look in doubt. One more lucrative book deal is called for and her new publisher tries to persuade Janice to 'sex up' her writing style to sell more copies.

      Can Janice move with the times but maintain her integrity? Where will she find inspiration? Will she be able to fund her quest to find the love of her life? All is revealed as Janice embarks upon a learning experience which brings her into contact with some colourful characters and changes her life forever.

      I found this an enjoyable alternative to the chick lit that seems to be everywhere. In Janice Gentle we have a character as far removed from the glamorous, 'pushing 30 but not yet found Mr Right', chick lit stereotype as you can imagine. I warmed to Janice immediately, particularly when I read a marvellous line of description that enabled me to picture her very clearly in my mind: "She wore a loose long cardigan that draped her form as unbecomingly as a dust sheet on a thirties suite."

      She may be single and something of a social misfit, but Janice is quite happy with her life. Unlike so many fat women in modern novels, she is not desperate to ditch the biscuits and diet, nor does she find her apparent invisibility to men a bar to contentment. She does not pine for the man she has not seen for 20 years, merely focusses on saving enough money to go and find him. Whilst it may seem a tad far-fetched, it is nonetheless refreshing. I love the irony of the fact that this reclusive, plain, virginal woman has such a deep understanding of romance, love and beauty: "She has never been sat upon by an elephant, but she knew that if she were, it would hurt."

      Our first encounter with Janice Gentle is when she is people-watching on the train. We learn that Janice draws the inspiration for her fictional characters from the people she sees on the tube. This drew me in straightaway as I like to people-watch when I am out and about and it was interesting to see Janice taking in the details of the various people, picking up little clues about them from their mannerisms, clothes, etc. I was keen to find out more about these people. As the book progresses, in addition to Janice Gentle's own story, we also follow the stories of several other characters. It means there are several different stories running along simultaneously, seemingly independent from each other but on occasions cleverly overlapping. I love this unusual style of writing!

      I like the fact that you are never certain whether you are reading about the 'real' people Janice spotted on the train or whether you are reading about Janice's fictional creations. It adds a nice ambiguity to the book, a sense of appearance versus reality or book within a book, which I always find intriguing. Are we seeing the characters through Janice's eyes or have they got a life of their own? Whilst it is true that the narrative skips around quite a bit from character to character, I did not find it confusing. I felt it kept the novel moving at a brisk pace and probably held my attention more than if it had spent too long focussing on any one character.

      Juxtaposing the experiences of the different characters allows for great comic and dramatic potential because sometimes we will be able to find out what one character is thinking and then immediately have a chance to contrast it with another character's take on things. This is particularly effective when portraying relationships where one party has a tendency to misunderstand the other and wrongly anticipate events.

      The text is peppered throughout with literary references and quotations from Chaucer, Langland, Christine de Pisan and Dante to name but a few. If you have no prior-knowledge of medieval literary texts, you may get a bit bogged down by these references. I studied Middle English literature at university, so I am not totally ignorant of the likes of Piers Ploughman, The Canterbury Tales or Troilus and Criseyde, but it's a long time ago now and even I found the references a bit heavy going, almost as if the author wanted to show us how learned she is.

      However, if you do have a familiarity with medieval literature, you will probably gain a better appreciation of Janice's character. Janice is something of a blue stocking, so her interest in such texts is quite understandable. Although ignorant of sexual love, she is obsessed by the medieval concept of courtly love. The story of Dermot Poll, Janice's long lost love, is very much a satire on the chivalric stories of old and Janice compares her own life quest, leaving the familiar for the uncertain, to the experience of the pilgrims in The Canterbury Tales. I certainly don't think a knowledge of medieval literature is a prerequisite for enjoying this novel, but I do feel it will add an extra level of meaning if you 'get' the references'.

      I find Mavis Cheek's observations of people to be spot-on and she comes out with some wonderful, ironic phrases. There are some marvellously well-drawn characters in this book. Perhaps my favourite of all is the DIY-obsessed husband and his ungrateful wife, which really struck a chord with me as I have known a few couples like that, where the man only seems to be happy when he is knocking a wall down or building something. I found this man's obsession with the Vent-Axia fan in the bathroom hilariously real.

      I liked the fact that there are characters of different ages and backgrounds in the book, which makes the book feel balanced. The young man feeling undervalued and misunderstood in his relationship and looking forward to being single again, the frustrated middle aged boss whose wife is a 'walking gynaecological text book' and the vicar's wife who longs for an affair are all portrayed with sensitivity and in a non-stereotypical way.

      I like the way that Mavis Cheek is never judgmental or patronising. The vicar's wife's behaviour, for example, is neither condoned nor condemned, but like the other characters in the book you are left with the feeling that she is neither good nor bad, but very human. Whether you approve of a character's actions or not, the scenes are often moving.

      Despite the title, this book is not overly racy. (I am informed that The Sex Life of my Aunt by the same author is raunchier) but it is frank in its treatment of sexual matters. I don't think there is anything offensive in the content though.

      This is the first Mavis Cheek novel that I have read and I am sure it won't be the last. I found it enjoyable and quite inspiring. Janice is an unusual role model but although few readers will be novelists, middle aged virgins or recluses, there is something about Janice that will be familiar to all of us. The way she embarks on a challenging new opportunity and ventures out of her comfort zone is something that many of us can relate to. This book has feel good qualities and successfully blends romance, whimsy, comedy and gritty realism. I recommend it to you.

      New copies of Janice Gentle Gets Sexy can be obtained from sellers at Amazon for a mere £0.01 in paperback. Unfortunately there doesn't seem to be a Kindle edition, although some of Mavis Cheek's other books are available in that format.

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