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Rose Lloyd was the last to suspect that Nathan, her husband of over twenty years, was having an affair, and that he was planning to leave her. But the greatest shock was yet to come; for his mistress was Rose’s colleague and friend, Minty.
Revenge of the Middle-Aged Woman follows Rose’s triumph of spirit over expectation and is a celebration of independence and self-fulfilment. Rose rejects the traditional vengeful route of the ‘wronged’ wife, preferring to explore, in the wake of her marriage collapse, the alternative life.
Read An Extract
“Here,” said Minty, my deputy, with one of her breathy laughs, “the review has just come in. It’s hilariously vindictive.” She pushed towards me a book entitled A Thousand Olive Trees by Hal Thorne with the review tucked into it.
For some reason, I picked up the book. Normally I avoided anything to do with Hal but I did not think it mattered this once. I was settled, busy, different, and I had made my choice a long time ago.
When we first discussed my working on the books pages, Nathan argued that, if I ever achieved my ambition to become the books editor, I would end up hating books. Familiarity bred contempt. But I said that Mark Twain had got it better when he said that familiarity breeds not so much contempt but children, and wasn’t Nathan’s comment a reflection on his own feelings about his own job? Nathan replied, ‘Nonsense, have I ever been happier?’ and ‘You wait and see.’ (The latter was -said with one of his ironic, strong-man I know-better-than-you smiles, which I always enjoyed.) So far, he had been wrong.
For me, books remained full of promise, and contained a sense of possibility, any possibility. In rocky times, they were saviours and lifebelts, and when I was younger they provided chapter and verse when I had to make decisions. Over the years of working with them, it had become second nature to categorize them by touch. Thick, rough, cheaper paper denoted a paperback novel. Poetry hovered on the weightless and was decorated with wide white margins. Biographies were heavy with photographs and the secrets of their subjects’ life.
A Thousand Olive Trees was slim and compact, a typical travelogue whose cover photograph was of a hard, blue sky and a rocky, isolated shoreline beneath. It looked hot and dry, the kind of terrain where feet slithered over scree, and bruises sprouted between the toes.
Minty was watching my reaction. She had a trick of fixing her dark, slightly slanting eyes on whoever, and of appearing not to blink. The effect was of rapt, sympathetic attention, which fascinated people and also, I think, comforted them. That dark, intent gaze had certainly comforted me many times during the three years we had worked together in the office.
“This man is a fraud,” she cited from the review. “And his book is worse. . .” “What do you suppose he’s done to deserve the vitriol?’ I murmured. “Sold lots of copies,” Minty shot back. I handed her A Thousand Olive Trees. “You deal. Ring up Dan Thomas, and see if he’ll do a quickie.” “Not up to it, Rose?” She spoke slowly and thoughtfully, but with an edge I did not quite recognize. “Don’t you think you should be by now?” I smiled at her. I liked to think that Minty had become a friend, and because she always spoke her mind I trusted her. “No. It’s not a test. I just don’t wish to handle Hal Thorne’s books.” “Fine.”, She picked her way round the boxes on the floor, which was packed with them, and sat down. “Like you said, I know how to deal.” I am not sure she approved. Neither did I, for it was not professional behaviour to ignore a book, certainly not one that would receive a lot of coverage. My attention was diverted by the internal phone. It was Steven from Production. “Rose, I’m very sorry but we are going to have to cut a page from Books for the twenty-ninth.” “Steven!?” “Sorry, Rose. Can you do it by this afternoon?” “Twice running, Steve. Can’t someone else be the sacrificial lamb? Cookery? Travel?” “No.”
Steven was harassed and impatient. In our business – getting an issue out – time dictated our decisions and our reactions. After a while, it became second nature, and we spoke to each other in a shorthand. There was never time for the normal give and take of argument. I glanced at Minty. She was typing away studiously, but she was, I knew, listening in. I said reluctantly, “I could manage it by tomorrow morning.?” “No later.” Steven rang off. “Bad luck.” Minty typed away. ‘How much?” ‘A ‘page.’ I sat back to consider the problem, and my eye fell on the photograph of Nathan and the children, which had a permanent place on my desk. It had been taken on a bucket-and-spade holiday in Cornwall when the children were ten and eight. They were on the beach, with their backs to a grey, ruffled sea. Nathan had one arm round Sam who stood quietly in its shelter, while the other restrained a squirming, joyous Poppy. Our children were as different as chalk and cheese. I had just mentioned that a famous novelist had also taken a house in Trebethan Bay for six months to finish a novel. ‘Good heavens.’ Nathan had made one of his faces. ‘I had no idea he was such a slow reader.’ I had seized the camera and caught Poppy howling, with laughter at this latest example of his terrible jokes. Nathan was laughing, too, with pleasure and satisfaction. See? he was saying to the camera. We are a happy family.
I leant over and touched Nathan’s face in the photograph. Clever, loving Nathan. He considered that the job of fatherhood was to keep his children so amused that they did not notice the unpleasant side of life until they were old enough to cope, but he also loved to make them laugh for the pleasure of it. Sometimes, at mealtimes, I had been driven to put my foot down: at best, Sam and Poppy’s appetites were as slight as their bodies and I worried about them. “Mrs Worry, do you not know that people who eat less are healthier and live longer?” demanded Nathan who, typically, had gone to some pains to find out this fact to soothe my fears.
On my way home , I slipped into St Benedicta’s. I felt in need of peace a moment of stillness. It was a modern, unremarkable church, with no pre-tensions to elegance or architectural excitement. The original St Benedicta?s had been blown up in an IRA terrorist campaign thirty years ago. Its replacement was as downbeat and inexpensive as a place of worship should be in an age that was uneasy about where the Church fitted.
As usual, on the table by the glass entrance doors, there was a, muddle of hymn books and pamphlets, the majority advertising services that had taken place the previous week. A lingering trace of incense mixed with the smell of orange squash, which came from an industrial-sized bottle stored in the corner – presumably kept for Sunday school. The pews were sensible but someone, or several people, had embroidered kneelers that were a riot of colour and pattern. I often wondered who they were the anonymous needle women, and what had driven them to harness the reds, blues, circles and swirls. Relief from a drab existence? A sense of order in transferring the symbols of an old and powerful legend on to canvas?
St Benedicta’s was not my church, and I was not even religious, but I was drawn to it, not only when I was troubled but when I was happy too. Here it was possible to slip out from under the skin of oneself, breathe in and relish a second or two of being no one in particular.
I walked down the central aisle and turned left into the tiny Lady Chapel where a statue of the Madonna with an unusually deep blue cloak had been placed beside the altar. She was a rough, crude creation, but oddly touching. Her too-pink plaster hands were raised in blessing over a circular candle-stand in which a solitary candle burned. A madonna with a special dedication to the victims of violence, those plaster hands embraced the maimed and wounded in Ireland and Rwanda, the lost souls of South America and those we know nothing about, and reminded us that she was the mother of all mothers, whose duty was to protect and tend.
Sometimes I sat in front of her and experienced the content and peace of a settled woman. But at other times I wondered if being settled and peaceful had been bought at the price of smugness. Fresh candles were stacked on a tray nearby. I dropped a couple of pounds into the box and extracted three from the pile. One for the children and Nathan, one for lanthe, one to keep the house – our house – warm, filled, and our place of our refuge.
I picked up my book bag, had a second thought, put it down again and hunted in my purse for another pound.
The fourth candle was for the erring minister’s wife and my dulled conscience.
On the way out, I stopped and tidied the pamphlets on the table.
Even though it was dark, I continued home by the park, prudently choosing the path that ran alongside the river.
Nobody could argue that it was anything but a city park, ringed as it was by traffic, pockmarked with patches of mud and dispirited trees, but I liked its determination to provide a breathing space. Anyway, if you took the trouble to look, it contained all sorts of unobtrusive delights. A tiny corona of snowdrops under a tree, offering cheer in the depths of winter. A flying spark of a robin redbreast spotted by the dark holly bushes. Rows of tulips in spring, with tufts of primula and primrose garnishing their bases. So far, winter had been a mild, dampish interlude. Earlier in the day, there had been half-hearted spatters of rain but now it was almost warm. It was too early to be sure, only February, but there was a definite promise of spring shaping up, things growing. I stopped to shift my book bag from one shoulder to the other, feeling the stretch and exhilaration of my life pulse through me.
I was late. I must hurry. I must always hurry.
Five minutes later, I walked up the tiled front path of number seven Lakey Street. Twenty years ago, Nathan and I had talked of restoring a silk-weaver’s house in Spitalfields, or discovering the perfect-priced Georgian family house on four floors, which – unaccountably – no one else had spotted. Lakey Street fitted between our small flat in Hackney and any wilder speculations. One day, we promised ourselves, we would upgrade, but we settled promptly into the Victorian terrace that comfortably encompassed our family and forgot about doing any such thing.
The street-lights were lit, and the fresh white paint on the window-frames was washed with a neon tint. The bay tree dripped on to me as I passed and, for the thousandth time, I told myself it was far too big, planted in the wrong place, and would have to go. For the thousandth time, I reprieved it.
I loved it.
A thoughtful, intelligent, funny, coming-of-middle-age story.
Wise, melancholy, funny and sophisticated.
Wise and wonderful. The 'revenge' in the title has little to do with getting back at people. Rather, Buchan celebrates the patience and wisdom that only age brings.
Bottom line: Get Revenge.
People (pageturner of the week)
Buchan's writing has the elegant understatement and wry wit that Americans so cherish in the British.
Brilliant, deliciously sensual, exquisitely crafted [with] intelligent restraint. Bravo to Buchan's witty, wise, and wonderfully readable novel.
Funny and sad. It is the mark of a good writer to be able to find a new angle on such an everyday situation.
A sophisticated and satisfying novel. Buchan opts for a more believable examination of one intelligent woman's coming-of-age.
Publishers Weekly (starred review)
What a terrific book! Revenge of the Middle-Aged Woman -from that wry, powerful title to its final paragraph-is so beautifully executed that it becomes new, fresh, and interesting.
Here is proof that pain can serve as a catalyst for a glorious rebirth. What I like best about this novel is everything.