MAGGIE ALDERSON Secret Keeping for Beginners. Reviewed by Michael Jongen
This delightful comedy of manners about family and secrets takes place in the world of fashion, design and social media.
I have been reading Maggie Alderson’s Fairfax columns for many years and have always admired the way she places fashion as belonging to both art and mammon. Not having read her books before I was curious to see how she would bring her industry smarts and love of fashion, design and life into the context of a novel. I was not disappointed.
In Secret Keeping for Beginners, Alderson has written a delightful 21st-century comedy of manners in the digital world that takes us to London and introduces us to Joy and her three daughters, Rachel, Tessa and Tash, at a pivotal time in their lives. When Rachel’s boss Simon is brought into the mix, we are flung into a tragi-comic series of events populated with rich characters.
The novel opens with Rachel, divorced and with two daughters. She arrives late for a meeting, slightly dishevelled and sweaty. Her new boss Simon wants to discuss a potential new account. Rachel patiently waits before she makes her pitch and shows how she can use her network to make it happen.
Meanwhile, in Kent, Tessa – Rachel’s older sister – is suffering ennui. Her children are growing up and her husband Tom has become a minor television celebrity, often absent from home. Tash, the youngest sister, has just arrived in London. Australian-born and a successful makeup artist, she is based in New York.
The mother, Joy has her own secret and is fearful of the official looking letters that have started arriving. She is also increasingly worried about her own wellbeing and her ability to live alone. Joy is the fulcrum of the novel, a beautifully drawn character aware of her flaws and determined to live her life despite them. She has shaped her daughters’ lives by example and by love and care:
Not to judge, not to judge, Joy reminded herself, bringing the hand holding the paring knife up to her heart chakra. She held it there and released her negative thought about her daughter. Her journey, her karma. Not to judge …
The novel’s set piece is when all the characters turn up at Tessa’s for a magazine shoot organised by Rachel. Using her contacts and her family, she arranges for an array of stylists, photographers and executives to arrive at Cranbrook. Rachel has concerns about mixing family and work, particularly as Simon also comes down for the shoot. Simon’s introduction to Rachel’s family is the catalyst of the novel. Rachel is so focused, however, that she fails to see the undercurrents: two characters meet again for the first time in 25 years; love interests develop and Tash unwittingly sets in train a course of events that will undermine Rachel. The subsequent rift between the sisters, and the consequences to the family, then form the basis of the story.
This is quite the London novel, with some lovely Dickensian coincidences that inform the plot and it is written with a deft and flawless authorial voice. Readers will enjoy the Pymsian tropes, as characters meet at the British Museum cafe and ponder town versus country. Alderson has a sly humour when she pricks the consciences of her characters, and there are some lovely laugh-out-loud moments. Simon ruminates:
… three gorgeous girls. All so attractive in such different ways. This younger one was much taller than her sisters. Had wonderful high cheekbones and, with her hair cut short on both sides, was rather androgynous. Striking looking. He’d have to make sure he didn’t get a crush on her as well. The full hat trick. Wouldn’t that be great? No, it wouldn’t.
All the characters have their secrets, and these impact on their lives and decision making. It is, however, Simon’s and Joy’s secrets that drive the dramatic tension of the novel. But while we watch the three sisters grapple with their issues, the author keeps Simon’s and Joy’s separate backstories firmly to herself. (‘Is it ever better to tell?’ asks the cover tagline.)
What fascinated me about the story was the behind-the-scenes look at the worlds of design and style Alderson brings us through Instagram, Twitter, fashion blogging and new media. Tash’s and Rachel’s professional worlds are wrapped up in their ability to network, seek information and learn, as well as self-promote. This raises fascinating issues about digital identity versus privacy. When Tash is given the opportunity to launch her own brand of scent, we are taken through the whole process in the most powerful of the subplots, as Alderson shows us the sheer pragmatism of the style industry and its impact on Tash’s emotional well-being:
Joy suddenly moved closer to the screen, as if something had just occurred to her.
‘Natasha, my darling,’ she said, ‘is this something to do with a man?’
Natasha looked at her blankly for a moment and then she started laughing. It was an ugly sound. Not a laugh of humour, it was all bitterness.
This is a novel about family and Simon’s connection to Rachel and her family is an integral part of it.
As a male reader I was convinced by the authenticity of Simon as a man and empathised with his logic. I understood and celebrated his connection with Joy – a very wise woman. How Alderson teases us about the possible source of this bond and its potential consequences: however, witnessing them help each other to unlock the past is joyful.
Tessa has her own story and the novel abounds with compelling minor characters whose lives intertwine and embellish the book. Alderson lets her characters collide, events and life continue, the plot develops and then she swiftly gathers up her loose ends and brings them together for a successful finale to a most satisfying read.
Maggie Alderson Secret Keeping for Beginners HarperCollins 2015 PB 480pp $29.99
Michael Jongen is a librarian who tweets as @michael_jongen and microblogs at http://larrythelibrarian.tumblr.com
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