I absolutely adore Clare Chambers's books. I've mentioned before that they are the type I never tire of rereading. They are my perfect comfort reads. I'm a little reluctant sometimes to use the phrase 'comfort read' as it has a way of sounding the tiniest bit dismissive. It almost implies that the book isn't as good as something else I might choose, and in order not to be embarrassed by my choice I'll just call it a comfort read and all of a sudden it becomes acceptable reading. I don't think that's the case at all with Clare Chambers's books. Her prose is smart, stylish and witty, she's an excellent storyteller and at times I literally laugh out loud as I read. Maybe I like her books so much because I can relate to them so well, her worlds are usually ones that I understand. That's definitely not a requirement in my reading (sometimes it's a completely unknown world I want to immerse myself in), but maybe that's why her stories are so 'comforting' to me. She hasn't forgotten what it's like to view the world through the eyes of a child, and as we're contemporaries, that childhood world is the same one I grew up in, though don't worry, the stories are in no way dated. And her characterizations are always spot on.
I've just finished rereading In a Good Light and loved every moment of it. Although I had read it before most of the plot had faded away and as I was going there was just a vague familiarity to the story, so it was almost like I was experiencing it all for the first time. I'd be hard pressed to say whether I like this book more than Learning to Swim, which I read again a couple of summers back. The stories have similar structures--both are told by female narrators looking back on their childhoods to a life altering event in their pasts moving seamlessly from present to past and back again. Both involve quirky characters and unusual family relations as well as humorous entanglements that sometimes end on a tragic note.
In the case of In a Good Light Esther Fairchild's family is on the unconventional side, much like the Radley household in Learning to Swim. They live in a converted schoolhouse that is closer to squalid than of the 'genteel poverty' persuasion. Mr. Fairchild is a prison chaplain at a young offenders' institution and Mrs. Fairchild's work with a mission and The Less Fortunate means her attentions tend to be elsewhere, though both parents are well meaning.
"Our parents were different from other people's, and they had different rules. They didn't mind if we were noisy or boisterous, or if we traipsed mud through the house, or slid down the compost heap, or caught nits. They didn't rant and fume when we came home from school with indelible ink on our uniforms, or pockets torn loose, or our shoes scuffed grey. When we left our pens all over the kitchen floor, Mum and Dad stepped over them, and when we trampolined on the beds and crippled the springs, and left footprints on the wall from sliding down the banisters, they just shrugged."
Esther adores her brother Christian who is older by five years. The two are almost inseparable growing up. No doubt it's their eccentric upbringing that makes them such amiable companions--no one else is quite like them. It's not so much that the family is poor than the Fairchilds are generous with their time, money and belongings--giving to those who need them more. And it's not unusual for 'guests' that the Fairchilds come across in their charitable undertakings to come stay at the schoolhouse, some being more welcome than others. A regular visitor is Donovan, younger than Christian but older than Esther, whose mother is a bit of a basket case. Aunty Barbara, an out of work actress, recently divorced, has good intentions but her life is just too much of a mess to be any real help to her son. He fits in perfectly at the schoolhouse.
So this is the whirlwind in which Esther, Christian as well as Donovan (at least part of the time) grow up. When Christian begins asserting himself as an adult, which means bringing home girlfriends, a whole new world opens up to Esther. You would expect there to be some measure of jealousy, but beautiful and wealthy Penny takes Esther under her wing as her "project" and Esther idolizes her.
"Before we left she pressed a copy of I Capture the Castle into my hands. 'You must read this,' she instructed. 'It's my favorite book. I'll draw up a list of others'."
"'I didn't realize I was going to have to do homework,' I grumbled, as we got in the Mini. Suddenly being Penny's protégée wasn't looking so attractive. I hadn't read much fiction since graduating from children's books. In fact the only grown-up book I'd read all the way through was The Lord of the Rings because it was Christian's favorite, but I hadn't enjoyed the experience. I found I couldn't work up much enthusiasm for non-human predicaments, however well described."
Penny is a natural addition to the family, but it's Penny's young daughter that Esther bumps into some seventeen years later who brings all these fond memories back to mind. So much so that she contrives a meeting with Penny. I mentioned a life altering event earlier? I won't tell you what it is, but it's this chance meeting that sets the ball rolling and the story going. At the beginning of the novel Esther is thirty-four and in a bit of a rut. Christian was always the ambitious one. Esther is contented working as an illustrator by day and a waitress by night meaning she makes next to no money. She has a fortnightly rendezvous with a married man and her life has become pretty safe and staid. Somehow a meeting Penny might just shake things up again.
Did I already say I loved this book? I loved Learning to Swim, too. Clare Chambers has such a knack for dealing with serious issues in a sympathetic way yet with just the right amount of humor. You're laughing on the outside but cringing just a bit on the inside as well. Once again she writes very convincingly about families and growing up, about love and how easily life can change in just a split second, and about second chances. I didn't want the story to end (as I helplessly raced through it), and I have finally decided to give The Editor's Wife a try. I have wanted to read more of her work but I've been afraid it won't live up to these two previous reading experiences. So far so good, though. I'm trying not to compare or have too many expectations. The good sign is I don't want to put this one down either. And I've ordered the rest of her books and have every intention of reading them all as soon as I can! How's that for a recommendation? Yes, I absolutely adore Clare Chambers's books.