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.)