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Paradise Lodge


Paradise Lodge

Pop quiz: Do you know what “O” levels are? Who Henry Purcell was? Jumpers and crisps: eat or wear? Do you spell honor with a u? Does Brexit refer to a breakfast cereal or a political crisis?

If you know the answers, PARADISE LODGE is a must-read. If you’re not sure, proceed with caution, resorting to Google when necessary. Even I --- dyed-in-the-sheep’s-wool Anglophile --- was stumped by some of the details in this semi-historical novel of the 1970s. But local color, er, colour, aside, the main event here is Nina Stibbe’s endearing voice: frank, funny, clever.  

Stibbe’s debut, LOVE, NINA, was an acclaimed epistolary memoir of her stint in the 1980s as nanny to a very literary London family. Her boss was editor of The ­London Review of Books, and the writer Alan Bennett (THE MADNESS OF KING GEORGE; THE HISTORY BOYS) was a neighbor and frequent visitor. She then produced a novel, MAN AT THE HELM, in which nine-year-old Lizzie Vogel and her older sister try to find a guy for their divorced, broke, free-spirited, pill-popping, play-writing, bed-hopping mother. This book is the sequel. It’s six years later, and the marvelously sensible Mr. Holt (antidote to their mum’s nuttiness) has joined the family as a live-in quasi-stepfather. There isn’t a lot of money, and Lizzie, at 15, has just nabbed a job at an old-age home, the eponymous Paradise Lodge, where she can be, as she puts it, “professionally compassionate.

Lizzie has quite the vocabulary, and quite the turn of phrase. Her sentences are as sly as Jane Austen’s, often with a deadpan comment tucked into one of the clauses (“[The Owner’s Wife] noticed everything, from a tiny stray thread on the day-room carpet to a patient lying flat out on the floor after tripping on a loose tile”), and her narrative abounds in bookish references (T. E. Lawrence, Anne Frank, Edna O’Brien, Daniel Defoe) as well as nods to ’70s pop culture. Lizzie has always been a good student; now, schoolwork suddenly gets harder and she starts to do shifts at Paradise Lodge instead of going to class. Soon she is in danger of being kicked out of the group slated to take “O” Level exams (the sole path to university) and funneled instead into the dreaded CSE exams, “for the less academic pupil.” Over her mother’s dead body.

"It’s funny, it’s touching, it’s right on, in classic ’70s parlance... I laughed --- loud and often --- and was thoroughly chuffed, not to mention thrilled to bits, to hear her story."

The plot of PARADISE LODGE turns mainly around Lizzie’s flirtation with educational disaster and the family’s efforts to get her terminally untruthful mother and Mr. Holt officially hitched, especially now that they’ve had a baby together. All this takes place against a background of high-jinks at Paradise Lodge involving a gaggle of old ladies and gents; the variously sensible, shallow, or deranged nursing staff; and Lizzie’s pal/co-worker Miranda and her boyfriend, Mike Yu, a sensitive hottie who calls Lizzie “an intellectual.” What with Lizzie’s mordant observations on everything from celebrity death (Elvis, Marc Bolan, Maria Callas) to nursing uniforms (pale jade with trousers, reminiscent of “the crew of the Starship Enterprise”), habitual public nudity to punk fashion, Coffee-Mate to ANIMAL FARM, there is never a dull moment.

As in Stibbe’s two previous books, the sardonic voice (“cheeky-but-wise,” Lizzie calls it) softens now and then to allow a glimpse of serious emotion. On the one hand, the twinning of a very young woman with some very old folks can’t help but get into sad, graphic territory, and Stibbe doesn’t pretty up the details: incontinence pads, rheumy eyes, dentures, bedsores, sudden death. On the other hand, Lizzie reads aloud from Jackie Collins to one dying woman, and her euphemism translation card (mostly bathroom-related), composed for a new manager, is a comic masterpiece. Lizzie, in short,is candid about her charges but never contemptuous --- unlike the crass Miranda, who regards them as “just around the corner from death.”

PARADISE LODGE also strikes a blow for the independent woman. (It starts off with a quote from P.G. Wodehouse: “At the age of eleven or thereabouts women acquire a poise and an ability to handle difficult situations which a man, if he is lucky, manages to achieve somewhere in the later seventies.”) Although Lizzie doesn’t seem initially to be all that liberated --- she’s preoccupied with brand-name shampoo and has a major crush on Mike Yu --- as the story develops it becomes clear that she is terminally skeptical about happily-ever-after. When her mother agrees to marry Mr. Holt, Lizzie realizes “how utterly terrible marriage was. That only in being asked by someone could you truly value yourself and then it was all making gravy and curtains.” Imagining marriage to Mike, she is leery of his elderly parents living with them and demanding wifely behavior: “I was going to expect certain freedoms.” Plus, Lizzie is appalled by the ghastliness of the wedding industry. On her mum’s big day, she describes her as wanting “to look bridey but not as if she was being sold into patriarchy.”

It’s funny, it’s touching, it’s right on, in classic ’70s parlance, but PARADISE LODGE, to me, wasn’t quite up to its predecessors. Stibbe’s first two books are miniseries material --- in fact, LOVE, NINA has already been turned into a five-part TV drama (aired only in the UK so far), and MAN AT THE HELM could go the same route --- whereas this novel is more like a sitcom. It lacks the dramatic tension of the other two; it resembles a long-running series that is sustained solely by the charm of its leading players. Nutty situations pile up, endearingly weird characters enter and exit, but it all begins to seem a bit random.

Lizzie holds it together almost singlehandedly. There’s no one in current Brit Lit quite as precocious, outrageous and supercalifragilisticexpialidocious. I laughed --- loud and often --- and was thoroughly chuffed, not to mention thrilled to bits, to hear her story. You will be, too.

Reviewed by Katherine B. Weissman on July 15, 2016

Paradise Lodge
by Nina Stibbe

  • Publication Date: July 12, 2016
  • Genres: Fiction, Humor
  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
  • ISBN-10: 0316309311
  • ISBN-13: 9780316309318