Alice Hartley’s Happiness by Philippa Gregory
Penguin Books 1992
It turns out I really like books about the marriages of middle aged people, especially when those marriages are in crisis, and particularly if the book is sort of postmodernist and funny. And Alice Hartley is just that.
I went into it thinking it was going to be Victorian – the cover suggested such, and there was nothing in the back blurb to indicate otherwise, but you know what they say about assuming. I suspect I would have liked it even better if it had been set in the Victorian era, but on the other hand, that might have tilted too much towards postmodern historical, and that tends to raise my hackles, so the contemporary setting was probably a better thing in the end.
Alice Hartley’s husband is a bastard. She decides that she’s not going to put up with his middle age crisis and leaves, and does everything she happens to want to do, without thinking about the consequences. It is very very charming; Gregory manages to write Alice in a way where she doesn’t seem at all flighty or stupid despite her rather eccentric decisions and fantasies – in fact, the underlying implication is that Alice is actually very in control of everything around her, and a shrewd business woman on top of that.
And like Alice, Gregory is also very in control of the story. She keeps the reins in her hands very carefully, and nothing is overlooked even though it might seem so at first. This is very encouraging; I haven’t read Gregory before, but I’ve been curious about the famous The Other Boleyn Girl (I had a rather intense Tudor phase in high school and later took a class at uni, and they remain a topic of interest), and if Alice Hartley is anything to go by I think I’m in for a treat.
Although a very accomplished novel, Alice gets four stars from me, mostly because of the lack of the WOW factor. I wasn’t exactly blown away – I was actually strongly reminded of David Lodge’s Small World, which does similar things as Alice Hartley but, in my opinion, to better effect. However, I definitely recommend this interesting insight to those little police reports in the news that leave you thinking, “How did that even happen? Who thinks to do that?” There’s also a feminist streak running through the novel, which is always delightful, and I particularly like the way it’s clearly visible but not overstated. Overall, Alice Hartley’s Happiness is a short, fast-paced read that’ll leave you thinking.