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Gillian, Helen and Carol have been friends since their sons played together as toddlers which was more than thirty years ago. The topic they discuss most often during their monthly meetings are their grown-up sons who seem to have forgotten them. The mothers don't know how they live, what they think and, above all, why there are no grandchildren.
When another Mother's Day comes and goes without even a card, they hatch a plan. They're going to descend on their sons unannounced and stay with them for a week during which they're going to find out what kind of men their boys have turned into. They won't be chucked out by their own flesh and blood, will they?
What the three mothers learn during the week is the content of the novel.
Carol has known for some time that her son Matt works for the lad mag BALLS! But up to now she's never had a look at it. When she does, she can't believe her eyes. He's become one of London's superficial IN types, spends his money on games and gadgets and beds underage, sleep-around clones of fashion models. He's a grown-up but hasn't grown up yet.
Helen has always been sure subconsciously that her son Paul is gay but she suffers that he's never come out to her. She discovers him in a gay commune and a secret about him that she never knew could exist at all.
Gillian has to drive to Edinburgh where her son Daniel has fled in order to get over his one and only love who he lost because he couldn't commit. Now he's depressed and ready to suffer for the rest of his life. His mother is not ready to see him wallowing in self-pity.
The mothers aren't under the delusion that they can change their sons in one week, however, they come up with some sly ideas which they stubbornly present to their sons, they hope they can plant seeds into their minds, so-to-speak, hoping they'll thrive when they've left.
Chick lit is written by women about women for women; Whatever Makes You Happy is written by a man about men for men, so do we have a specimen of lad lit here? Yes and no or rather yes, but not only. Firstly, the novel doesn't follow the typical pattern of chick lit novels, namely one woman, two men, which one is Mr Right? Secondly, it's nearly as much about the mothers as it is about the sons. Flashbacks inform us why the mothers react in the way they do or why they're able to give a specific advice. In the end the week has done something for the sons as well as for the mothers. And, surprise, surprise, one of them returns home as a grandmother, a real one, not a grandmother-to-be!
The three threads run parallel, they're not interwined, we read about Carol and Matt, then about Helen and Paul and then about Gillian and David. When we're through, the next round follows the protagonists in the same way. This isn't puzzling in any way, it's easy to follow the different stories and it isn't boring, either. The meeting of the three women at the beginning and a résumé at the end serve as a frame.
The book is easy to read, the language isn't complicated. Humorous incidents and emotional ones make for touching reading. What strikes me is how sensitively William Sutcliffe describes the characters, the mothers as well as their adult sons. They all come over as realistic people.
I don't remember why I ordered this book, the cover is boring and the title is also uninspiring. I'm glad I did, though, I like it very much and can only recommend the read - for young men who may find themselves in it and mothers with similar problems alike.
The author was new to me, from research on the net I've learnt that he's written some novels following the progress of his generation as they cope with the ordinary problems of everyday life. He was born in 1971 and has obviously watched and listened to his coevals attentively. He's married to the novelist Maggie O'Farrell. Whereas I couldn't read more than about thirty pages of one of her novels, I'm going to read also the other novels William Sutcliffe has written. He thanks his wife at the end of the book, but maybe he should teach her how to write readable novels.
RRP 10.99 GBP
I hadn't previously heard of William Sutcliffe before picking up his latest novel Whatever Makes You Happy. The blurb on the back sounded interesting and the front cover - a sofa with each side having a distinct ''his 'n' her'' feeling - drew me in further. I tend to prefer novels by female authors, but this reminded me of the 'lad lit' type books of Nick Hornby or some of Ben Elton's, so I looked forward to the read.
The plot itself is one that would appeal to both male and female readers. Three men in their thirties are visited by their mothers, who arrive unannounced and inform their offspring they are staying with them for a week. The women feel they have each grown apart from their sons and wish to regain some of the closeness they had years ago. Admittedly, they might fancy prying a bit and perhaps gently chivvying their 'boys' along a certain path.
Carol arrives at Matt's house, Helen at Paul's and Gillian at Daniel's. Armed with a façade of pleasantries, a crop of excuses along the lines of 'just passing...' and their best motherly cooking skills, they inveigle their way into their sons' homes in the aim of helping them both.
Although I am closer in age to the sons in the novel than the mums, it was the women I most related to when reading this book. My son is only sixteen, but the day he moves out might only be a couple of years away and I would also be upset if our relationship diminished as he went on into his adult life and other things became more important than his dear old mum.
I found myself empathising with most of the characters in some way or another though. Every time my mum visits us, I like to ensure the house is clean and tidy, despite knowing I can never get it to the same high standard she expects. So I could definitely comprehend the horror the sons felt when their mothers arrived without warning.
I could also see my own mother in the characters of Helen, Gillian and Carol. This gave me a good understanding of their motivations, feelings and desires, while also realising the limitations of them as viewed by the sons.
I think this is one of the book's strengths, as despite initially pigeonholing ''Whatever Makes You Happy'' in the lad lit genre, it is more than that. The subject area covered would make it an insightful, attractive and humorous read for anyone from teenager to the elderly. There is quite a lot of swearing and some sexual scenes though, so don't buy it for your conservative Great Aunt who likes her literature pure and chaste.
The writing style itself is very clever and witty, but without being pretentious. There were many phrases in it that - as an aspiring writer - I wished I had written myself, but these never came across as 'Aren't I clever at being able to write like this?' as I have found in some novels which profess to be literary fiction.
A novelist can be as clever as s/he likes, but if the book isn't readable, it becomes something of an own goal. Sutcliffe combines superb writing and wonderful turns of phrase with believable characters and interesting plots, which make you read on and enjoy unravelling the threads of the story.
This book isn't perfect however. I occasionally had to check previous chapters to remind myself which characters were which - particularly the mothers - and I felt sometimes they were not distinct enough. Also, when I had finished, I felt slightly let-down by the ending. I'm not quite sure why, as in many ways, it was a satisfactory one, but I just felt a tad disappointed.
I was impressed enough to want to read more of his work though and I would recommend Whatever Makes You Happy to anyone who likes the sound of it. While not the best book in the world, it is certainly a good read, an easy book to get into and one which can be thought-provoking and insightful.
(This review was previously published on The Bookbag.)