Wednesday, 3 March 2010

Isa and May: Margaret Forster

It seems appropriate that while waiting for the birth of my granddaughter Isabela, I should have been reading a book about grandmothers.
Isamay is a young woman in her twenties, trying to make sense of the conflicting role models provided by the grandmothers she is named for - the upper class, matriarchal Isabel (known as Isa), and the working class, rather bolshy May. Isamay has high achieving parents and is struggling to find a direction for her own life. Her current project is an MA dissertation on the importance of grandmothers in society. Each chapter in the novel includes a synopsis of one particularly high-profile woman’s attitude to their grandchildren, Queen Victoria, Sarah Bernhardt , Margaret Mead etc.
The novel starts slowly with a lot of ‘telling’ and back-story in the early chapters, though the pace picks up later when Isamay begins to act on curious pieces of information she unearths about her own family history. She discovers that her grandmothers have secrets and their lives are not as respectable as family stories have led Isamay to believe.

Margaret Forster is a very accomplished novelist and biographer with more than 30 published titles (most of them still in print), since Georgy Girl caught the public’s imagination in 1965. Her ability to portray interesting elderly women was apparent in her fourth novel, The Travels of Maudie Tipstaff, whose central character is a grandmother very similar to May. Since the mid nineteen nineties, Margaret Forster has produced her very best work, including the two family memoirs Hidden Lives and Precious Lives, and a distinguished biography of Daphne du Maurier. Her most recent novel ‘Over’ was shortlisted for the Orange Prize for fiction.
Unfortunately Isa and May is not one of Margaret’s best novels. When I finally put it down, I actually wished that she had written it as non-fiction - the research into the role of grandmothers in society was intriguing, but didn’t blend particularly well with the fictional context. I would have loved to have read Margaret’s analysis of her own personal experience, both of being a grandchild and being a grandmother. I think it would have made a much more powerful book. But the novel is still an enjoyable read.

Margaret Forster is an interesting author from the point of view of other authors. She refuses to do the literature festival circuit, rarely gives interviews and shuns the celebrity author slot. In fact she does none of the things publishers insist we should be doing in order to sell books. She is also in the age bracket where publishers often suggest voluntary euthanasia. Yet her books sell better and better. Word of mouth and readers' recommendations are obviously the best publicity an author can have.

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