Thursday, March 20, 2014
A Review: Baggy Pants and Bootees, by Marilyn Chapman
The first thing I want to say about this book is that I wanted to read through to the end. That’s already a sign that a book is worth at least three stars. I was particularly interested to learn the fate of the characters from that part of the story set during the Second World War.
The story takes place during two time periods, related side by side. In the late 1960s we meet Sophie, an ambitious, capable young woman trying to make her place in the very masculine world of journalism. She works for a small town newspaper with links to national newspapers. As a young teenager, her alcoholic mother threw her out of the house and she was forced to make it on her own. It is when the mother she has not seen for years makes contact with her that the story begins in earnest. When her mother has an accident and loses touch with reality, Sophie begins a quest to find out the truth about her own origins. Was her father really a US Army officer, or was this a story concocted by her mother to cover a darker secret?
This introduces us to the other time period, during the war years. We meet Sophie’s mother, Frances, at the time when her family is killed during an air raid, and follow her story up to and beyond the birth of Sophie. For me, it is this second story that has the greatest depth of characterisation and in which there is real drama to be found. For me, Frances’ story is at the heart of the novel.
In her quest to find the truth, Sophie is aided by two men. The first is Steve, a photographer at the newspaper who has a reputation as a ladies’ man, and who begins a pursuit of Sophie. She resists, and in this storyline there are some rather conventional themes. The other man is David, who is the son of the woman in whose house Frances lived as a boarder, and in which Sophie suspects she was born. From the beginning she feels a strong connection with David, for reasons that she cannot understand. In this part of the story, there are fallings in and out, misunderstandings and jealousies, which I largely found myself impatient to get through until we were returned to Frances’ story.
Frances, for me, is clearly the best delineated and most interesting character. Sophie is not a caricature, nor is she exactly two-dimensional. At times, though, I did find her annoying. David and Steve are both given some complexity, but still seemed rather half-heartedly drawn. During the 1960s episodes, the author largely adopts the point of view (POV) of Sophie, although occasionally she does adopt the POV of these men. I never felt that I quite came in touch with any of these characters inner lives, the way I did with that of Frances.
During Frances’ era, the minor characters have some life and colour. During Sophie’s era, the minor characters—mostly her co-workers—are little more than names on the page. Occasionally one will surface briefly and do or say something, but this never constitutes anything of real significance for the story. Usually I had no idea who these people were if they were eventually mentioned a second time.
As with the characters and story, so with the setting and ethos. I felt that the author did a much better job of making me present during the war era than during the sixties. The mood and feeling of the former period was reproduced much more effectively than that of the latter. Apart from the mention of Woodstock, there was little here that felt like the sixties. The attitudes expressed by the characters, including Sophie, smacked more of the fifties than the sixties. In 1969, would people really react with such shock to the thought of a man and woman spending the night together? Would Sophie really refer to an unmarried woman in her thirties as a ‘spinster’? There was so much going on in the world at that time—the moon landing, Vietnam, drugs, the hippy movement, the music, other social movements. This strand of the story would have benefited greatly by drawing on some of these elements.
The central plot—I refer here to the mystery that gradually emerges as Frances’ story is told—is clever and plausible. The revealing of it is also well told. The writing at times is very good—again mainly in the telling of the earlier story. This is a good illustration of the interaction between plot, characterisation and writing style: it all just works so much better when Frances’ story is being told. Perhaps, like me, this is where the author’s heart really was.
I had a few minor quibbles here and there with some details of the plot. There were also a few typographical errors that might be corrected. What defines this novel for me, though, is the contrast between the two time periods. Frances’ story would easily get four, if not four and a half, stars from me. Sophie’s story, though, would get three stars. I will therefore compromise and give this three and a half stars (rounded up to four where necessary).