Written by Sue Townsend, the bestselling author of the Adrian Mole series, my expectations were high for The Woman Who Went to Bed for a Year. Although the novel starts off extremely promising – inviting genuine guffaws of laughter at points – it rapidly goes downhill after the first twelve or so chapters.
The novel follows the life of one mother, Eva, after her twins go to Leeds University. The second they leave, she clambers into bed and refuses to get out of bed for a year. Initially, the reader admires Eva’s Shirley Valentine-esque defiance of her husband’s outdated expectations – who will cook him dinner? How does the washing machine work? Why is the house a mess? – but this doesn’t last long. What at first seems like a protest against her years of hard work and limited appreciation quickly becomes far more worrying. Eva’s marriage falls apart, and the twins – Brianne and Brian Jr, named after their astronomer father, Brian – are revealed to have been the glue that previously held Eva’s life together. Without them she is lost, beginning her descent into insanity.
Plot-holes – for instance “how would she go to the toilet? and “wouldn’t everyone just refuse to bring her food until she got out of bed?” – are dubiously navigated by Townsend in the form of questionable plot devices and two-dimensional characters. Eva’s stepmother, Yvonne, and mother, Ruby, both wait on her hand and foot, entertaining her desire to stay in bed by bringing her food and keeping her company. Likewise, the men in Eva’s life – Alexander the dreadlocked handy-man, Stanley the deformed veteran and the window cleaner – all seem willing to pitch in and help, rather than getting Eva the help she quite clearly needs by the end of the novel.
“Oxbridge wanted me. I went for an interview, but quite honestly I couldn’t live and study somewhere so old fashioned.”
Brianne asked, “Where was your interview – Oxford or Cambridge?”
Poppy said, “Do you have auditory defects? I told you, I was interviewed in Oxbridge.”
“And you were offered a place to study at Oxbridge University?” Brianne checked, “Remind me, where is Oxbridge?”
Poppy mumbled, “It’s in the middle of the country”, and went out.
This story is interspersed with updates from the twins’ lives, which mainly sees them being plagued by the farcical character of Poppy – a compulsive liar who brings devastation wherever she goes – as well as failing to adapt to university life due to their social ineptitude. Poppy and Brian are wholly detestable characters as the result of their selfishness; the former even seduces Brian, the twins’ scumbag father, who can’t seem to keep his fly done up for one moment. In marked contrast, the twins invite pity from the reader owing to the unscrupulous manner in which Townsend has written them off as losers. As well as this spotlight on the twins’ life at university, there are also several unnecessary references to a Chinese student, Ho, who is financially ruined by Poppy and her scheming, followed up by chapters about his parents back in China, who will stop at nothing to finance their son’s medical training.
Whilst the novel had the potential to be a poignant reflection of the domestic reality for many couples once their children fly the nest, Townsend falls short of such an expose. Instead, the tongue in cheek writing, bedecked with racial and sexist stereotypes and a plethora of plot-holes, loses its edge the more you read. Adrian Mole may have been a bestseller, but this book probably wouldn’t have ever been published if it wasn’t for Townsend’s previous success.
Words by Beth Kirkbride