'The Unfortunates' by Laurie Graham
I picked this book up from a Bookcrossing shelf in Derby and though I had previously not heard anything about this author the cover photo appealed and the quote on the front tempted me further:
"It is a marvel. Graham's style is riveting, hilarious one liners falling in quick succession." Anthea Lawson, 'The Times
Laurie Graham has written six previous novels and this is her seventh, she was formerly a Daily Telegraph columnist and then a contributing editor to 'She' magazine. Her writing career obviously took off and she now lives in Italy and writes novels and radio drama scripts.
Her other books include 'The Future Homemakers of America', 'Dog Days, Glen Miller Nights', ' The Man for the Job and four others. She has also written three non-fiction titles 'The Parent's Survival Guide', 'The Marriage Survival Guide' and finally 'Teenagers'. If her writing style in this novel is anything to go by then these should be an entertaining read.
The heroine is a rather unlikely Jewish girl with unruly hair and sticky out ears. Poppy Minkel is extremely naive and the daughter of a Jewish (but Poppy is unaware she is Jewish for quite some years) mother rather like Mrs Bennet in 'Pride and Prejudice'. It is years before Poppy actually realises she is Jewish and even then she thinks it is something you can choose to be or not as the feeling takes.
Poppy is determined not to be married off as her sister was as she sees her sister is far from happy. Sadly her father is lost when the Titanic sinks and from this time on Poppy is allowed to become more herself and less controlled by her mother and her Aunt Fish.
The story is about poppy's life, her growing up, volunteering in the First World War, her marrying, moving to Paris, France with her unsuitable husband. Throughout the novel nothing Poppy does is straightforward or normal, she learns to fly small planes, she designs clothes and opens a boutique, she has children but even that has not quite the end result you might expect. Despite being very successful Poppy is constantly drawn in to her family and its grasps back in America and she never seems to please them.
It is hard to tell more of the story without spoiling it for anyone wanting to read it but suffice to say it is a family saga set in New York, Paris and Melton Mowbray in Leicestershire with a wonderfully self centred, naive but talented, generous and amusing heroine. Poppy was able to enjoy this fine lifestyle because she was a 'Mustard heiress' thanks to her grandfather's industry in starting 'Minkels's Mighty Fine Mustard' all those years before.
I just loved the author's writing style. Her sense of humour just tickled me and from her descriptions I could almost picture all the characters. It would make a brilliant film as there is just so much tongue in cheek humour and such brilliant characters.
I just had a mental picture of Poppy's Ma with here snobbery and what was the dome thing to do. She was so controlling and full of what was done and not proper that Poop aged fifteen was totally ignorant of the facts of life and was still making doll's clothes. Poppy believed until the day she first had sex that kissing made you 'catch a baby'.
Poppy's formal education was also fairly brief as both she and her sister, Honey both "started late due to measles, whooping cough and Ma's conviction that paper harboured disease and all books were written by socialists."
When her mother remarried a more orthodox and religious Jew poppy was left to her own deivises and tried to befriend normal people and get a job. She worked in a sewing finishing room and liked the job except that the "other finishers sniggered when I wore my black Mexican pearls and complaining when I took the day off to drive my sister to one of her houses in Oyster Bay". When Poppy asked the supervisor how she was meant to have any sort of life if she couldn't take a day off when she pleased. "She replied that from that moment on I might take off all the days I liked, and to close the door behind me on the way out." Poppy's response to this is typical of her totally naive misunderstanding of the world and what reality for most of the population is and how very privileged and sheltered her upbringing was. "I began to see how small-mindedness held back the working classes. I began to understand why they always looked so glum. And but for a chance encounter, I might have given up my project to join the masses and make new friends."
Later in the story Poppy ends up marrying to someone loosely connected to the Royal family which greatly impresses her mother and Aunt Fish who come over to a wedding bringing their own Tiffany tiaras. Poppy meanwhile became "quite fluent in English... Hecking was when you rode your horse along the metalled road as distinct from riding crorse-country". "Rum was the Merrick work for room".... " Hyce was the Merrick way of saying house". These little gems are popped in from time to time as Poppy settles into English aristocracy in Melton Mowbray.
Although the book is written in a very tongue in cheek style with these one liners spattered throughout, there is a serious and quite sad element to the story too. The time takes us from just before the First World War through to well after the Second World War. Members of the family suffer hardship, financial bankruptcy and loss and of course Poppy goes from a thirteen year old to an old lady of over eighty. Poppy loses friends and relatives but she bounces back and survives to live on never giving up.
I really enjoyed the book and will certainly keep an eye out for her other books as I just loved ger writing style. The humour was understated and really helped the reader understand things from poppy's point of view. She did some pretty awful things but still you couldn't help but like and admire her. She was her own person and very ""modern" as she liked to describe her ideas. She was able to do all the things she did because she was rich but she never ever just sat back and did nothing, she had a lot of talents and was never selfish with her fortune but had a complete lack of comprehension about how the other half or "unfortunates" lived.
I would certainly recommend this if you enjoy books written with a sense of humour, poking fun at the upper classes, those who aspire to join them and Jewish family life. It is well written, the characters are very real and even those irritating ones you can't help but smile at. It is very easy to read and I quickly got into the story and felt I knew the characters so if you come across I would say give it a try , I am sure you will enjoy it.
I left mine in Madagascar as it was a Bookcrossing book. It was left in Reception at the Dauphin Hotel, Fort Dauphin if anyone is passing that way.
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