Reviewed by Carole Castle
For Once in My Life is London writer Marianne Kavanagh’s debut novel. The cover is enticing and symbolic: a little black dress, piano keys and large splashes of colour. Tess believes everyone in the world has a soul mate – they are two halves of a whole. They just have to find each other. The hopes and dreams you had when you left University are very different to the unpredictable reality of life. Reality is more complicated in its crazy twists and turns. Tess’s friends say she should meet George but fate plays games with narrowly missed meetings and misunderstandings.
Rather than girl meets boy, the plot is more like how girl doesn’t meet boy. The story unfolds in chunks of years starting at 2002 and is updated in 2003, 2004, 2007, 2008 and 2010. It progresses the narrative of Tess and George and their group of friends who were at University together as a slice of life in time. Tess’ friend Kirsty says she must meet George. The fact that Tess and George narrowly miss actually meeting face to face countless times, creates an element of suspense running through the novel. It is an effective writing technique keeping the reader guessing to exasperation. The story opens with some active drama when a woman’s bag is snatched. Tess is introduced as the one who comforts the woman and George is the one who runs after the bag-snatcher (to no avail). So near, so far, but they don’t meet. Nor do they meet at a mutual friends’ party when the next opportunity arises. An eventful plane flight to Paris follows. They are both passengers unbeknownst to each other. Tess is in Paris on a work trip that she thinks is disastrous and you want to slap her for her helplessness. George is in Paris with high hopes of getting his band off the ground and famous. Their next close encounter is when they are both at their friends’ wedding and George is playing in the band, but again they don’t meet. Then there is a dinner at Tess’ house to which George is invited but he can’t come due to illness. Another time George is in Tess’ office but Tess is not there. Then they are at the same music concert a few seats from each other unaware of each other. These situations keep the frisson of tension alive through the story. Finally Tess hears about this mysterious elusive George that he is married with a baby. That appears to be the end of the matter. The six degrees of separation theory is even closer in these close encounters.
Tess and George have partners and working lives that don’t make them happy. Various romantic philosophies are contrasted together about the human mating puzzle. Tess believes that ‘every soul is divided at birth and you have to search until you find the other half’ (29). She believes that there is one true love that makes you happy and fate brings you together. When Tess attends some mutual friends’ wedding she is moved by the best man’s wedding speech ‘ that love is what makes us into the people we want to be’ (78). It seemed to Tess that the bride and groom had found the ‘right’ each other early in their lives. On the other hand Tess’ friend Kirsty says there are many ‘right one’ possibilities and it depends on who you meet. Most people fall in love with the person standing in front of them. Another perspective is as a cautionary tale of not settling for second best just because they are there. Also, Kavanagh makes a point of having her characters say not to mistake love for lust and sex. There is a lesbian relationship amongst the friends to keep the relationships equitable and politically correct.
However Tess is with Dominic and has been since University. He is good-looking, sexy and practical. She rationalises that their relationship is like Yin and Yang: logic and feeling, head and heart. George is with Stephanie, a high-flying and ambitious lawyer and they have a child. His band has faltered and his music has been relegated to the background.
There are two connected and interwoven narratives that take place in a parallel time. What links the two worlds of the main characters Tess and George, is their neediness. The story is contemporary yet old fashioned with its sense of time and place stretching from the era of grandparents and World War 2, their children and their children’s children. It is intergenerational. The story connects the range of lives of families: mothers, daughters, parents, and grandparents. Tess’ mother is forgetful and muddles her way through life. She forgets what she is doing and her ‘bags of carrots laying about half-peeled’ is one amusing yet sad picture. George’s father is emotionally cold and distant in his relationship to his son. They are all identifiable as people we may know. Kavanagh is a clever painter of multicultural and transgender characters.
Readers are drawn to the characters of Tess and George in their neediness. They epitomise the contrast in the difference of being needed and the hopeless feeling of not being needed. Tess is somewhat of a Bridget Jones character, disorganised and bumbling into situations through her lack of confidence. From the outset she is portrayed as a kind, compassionate and empathetic person, as evidenced in the bag-snatching incident. Also she befriends a homeless man on the doorstep of her workplace bringing him coffee every morning showing her genuine caring personality. She works in the Marketing department of an online business selling specialist stationary, Daisy Greenleaf Designs in the West End of London. She is in Customer Services, which means the Complaints Department, dealing with the ‘moaners, shouters, liars and genuines’. Her work mate comments that ‘It’s like life really, not many genuines‘ (16).
After the bag-snatching incident, George ‘has a familiar sense of gloom’ which was not just ‘random violence in a city full of strangers’(6) and experiences the bewildering chaos that followed him around wherever he went – lost keys, odd socks, off milk, red bills, bank cards that wouldn’t work and passwords he couldn’t remember, a seething scuttling mass like cockroaches in a dark basement that you only see, for one horrified moment, when you turn on the light.
He has been out of University for five years and is now facing a brick wall, a dead end. When he chooses music as his career, his doctor father ‘erases him’ (93). He was still working a stop-gap temporary job until his band takes off. It is a bleak picture indeed of poor needy George.
Around the two protagonists is their network of likable friends from Manchester University. They are a mixed bag of quirky and engaging characters. They are portrayed in a credible and endearing way and you find yourself barracking for them. One friend has become an artist and makes a giant bra out of chicken bones. It is a social commentary along the way about life, partner and work choices. The diverse friends are a good conduit for contradictions and dilemmas. Of course they are offset with some ‘villains’ although not many. One is George’s wife Stephanie, who is ambitious, controlling and heartless. Another, George’s father is a heartless parent. Tess and her partner Dominic are just mismatched and you are left feeling sorry for him.
Kavanagh‘s engaging style is chatty and conversational. She uses short sentences and effective dialogue that enlivens it. She uses humour to advantage with situational comedy, not unlike Bridget Jones style. Told in the third person, the use of dialogue enables the immediacy of the first person to be used frequently.
The author switches between Tess and George, in London and New York, almost ‘he said, she said’ style. Sometimes the switches can be confusing until you realise a change has taken place within the chapter and you have to reread to see if you have missed something.
The author’s language is fresh, witty and colourful. There are some memorable analogies such as ‘He felt like a painting that was being analysed and found wanting – sloppy brushwork, indeterminate colour, and lack of form and substance’(210) Glenda, another character is described as ‘like a bubble on the point of explosion’(15).
Some of her metaphors are memorable such as the opening lines ‘Oxford Street hadn’t woken up. It was still in bed with last night’s hangover wearing last night’s makeup’ (3). Her opening scene is vividly described then into the dramatic action ‘And then the body hit her’ (3). The scene is an effective hook to draw the reader into the action using the bag-snatching incident.
The content is contemporary referring to current or recent events, films and music. Such names as Brad Pitt and Gwyneth Paltrow and events as Twin Towers, suicide bombers and Al-Quaeda place the book in present time. Yet it harks back to the old-fashioned clothes and music of grandparents and wartime. Tess’ obsession is 1940’s vintage clothing and George loves the swing jazz of a certain by-gone era. We learn more about 1940’s clothing during the war years, when ‘making do’ was necessary. Because of shortages, dresses could only have two pockets and five buttons and men were not allowed turnups on their trousers. Tess likes to wear her unique vintage outfits with all the accessories and the descriptions are charming and authentic. As well as placing her narrative in time and place, the author is attentive to appealing to the senses: she highlights the artistic sense with descriptive vision which includes art shows and clothes, the sounds of music and its effect on the players and audience, the taste and importance of food and wine along the way and touch, although pointing out that lust is not love.
As the novel would be in the romance genre, the themes are centred around love and loss. Beneath its entertaining presentation it is philosophical and poses moral and ethical questions through the characters and situations. Tess and George are old-fashioned, so the morality of relationships is important to them. In the pursuit of happiness and being true to oneself, money and ambition are pitted against kindness and having a creative life.
Without giving away the ending, you may guess. It takes a few more twists and turns of misunderstandings and missed opportunities and complications in its resolution. However, it is optimistic with a good balance of optimism and regret along the way. ‘The title from the song For Once in My Life is apt for continuing on with the words “I‘ve found someone who needs me”. It was famously sung by Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett and Stevie Wonder. A wise elderly lady says ‘ If someone really needs you, it makes you strong’ (144).
If you are looking for a light and entertaining book, then I would highly recommend this one, with its engaging vivacity and humour.
By Marianne Kavanagh
The Text Publishing Company