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Old 6th Nov 2006, 10:05   #1
leyla
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Default Margaret Forster: Diary of an Ordinary Woman

Another book club one. Somewhat infuriating as I've peeked at all the glowing comments written about this by the other book club people and feel miffed that these people weren't propelled towards another, infinitely superior account of the twentieth century through the eyes of one individual,namely William Boyd's wonderful Any Human Heart. The Forster book is not a patch on the Boyd one.

Diary of an Ordinary Woman - Margaret Forster

This is a novel told almost entirely via diary entries written by a fictional character, a woman, Millicent King, born just after the beginning of the twentieth century, who kept a diary until the age of 94. It tells the story not only of an average woman but also of a century, working through tumultous events such as the two World Wars and their effects on an 'ordinary woman' like Millicent.
Initially, Milicent is shallow, petulant and self absorbed and has no interest in politics or in anything that doesn't directly interefere with her personal sphere, and this young Millicent is not a hugely likeable person, despite her obvious spirit, stubbornness and independence. Aged 16 when her brother George is wounded in WW1, her first thoughts on hearing of his injury are selfish and immature, wondering if the pen she gave him for his birthday saved him from more serious injury by blocking the bullet.
But slowly, her headstrong and opinionated personality looks outwards as well as inwards and she becomes a far more caring and compassionate person. She enters teaching, travels to Italy as the tutor of a motherless child, becomes a paid companion, switches to social work, and then drives ambulances during WW2. The reader follows her life as described by her diary entries, taking in her daring (for the time) relationships, contact with her large family, and search to find herself. Eventually, the war brings tragedy in many different ways and her life is changed for ever by these events.
Initially, when the diary entries are self centred and ignore political events, I couldn't help comparing the book unfavourably with William Boyd's fantastic Any Human Heart, which also tells the story of one fictional individual throughout the twentieth century, but which does so in a way that incorporates brilliant writing, hilarity, extremes of emotion and true literary genius. In contast, Forster's book lacks lyrical prose - the writing is always very ordinary indeed - or the breadth and scope of Boyd's novel, which spans not only the world wars but also explores many other areas such as events in the art world and other fascinating territories not tackled in Forster's book. But as Forster's book progresses and Millicent becomes less selfish, the entries become more interesting. There are inevitably a lot more domestic details than in Boyd's masterpiece, but this is perhaps unavoidable since Boyd's protagonist was a man who was largely free of childcare or drudgery.
The things that make this book worth reading are the insights it gives into an average famly and how it was torn apart by the wars, how the members courageously dusted themselves down and got on with life, and how a woman's life was so different less than a hundred years ago. It is also revealing to look at family relationships with a telescopic vision, seeing the way they ebb and flow and how sometimes those in whom one invests the most love and time are not necessarily those who love back the most.And finally, it is engrossing to see the events of the last century - not only the world wars, but other major occurences such as the Greenham Common protests, as related by someone who was there at the time.
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Old 11th Nov 2006, 11:35   #2
John Self
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Default Re: Diary of an Ordinary Woman - Margaret Forster

Leyla, what do you think are the chances that if your comments are published in next week's Times Book Club, they'll just use the last paragraph ("The things that make this book worth reading..."), thereby giving the impression that you really liked it?
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Old 12th Nov 2006, 18:04   #3
leyla
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Default Re: Diary of an Ordinary Woman - Margaret Forster

Selfie, it's funny you should say that because I had a peek at the Times book club online pages a few days ago and just as you predict above, the only bit they printed was the very last paragraph, starting 'the things that make this book worth reading' - so you are spot on. I was a bit miffed because 1 - it makes the review sound so lame to just have that small paragraph, and 2 - I didn't want to sound like I loved the book, especially when the William Boyd book Any Human Heart tackled the same idea so much more eloquently and movingly. So I e mailed Alyson Rudd and asked if she could please insert the paragraph above the last one too. It probably won't happen, but I had to ask.
I'm also wondering about the book club choices - I wonder if there is a reason why they are not choosing books which most people who love books would jump at the chance of buying - why haven't they discussed a single one from the 2006 Booker shortlist or even longlist, for example. I hope there is no incentive on their part to promote books which aren't selling too well at Times online!
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Old 12th Nov 2006, 18:19   #4
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Default Re: Diary of an Ordinary Woman - Margaret Forster

Who knows? I wonder if there is a disproportionate representation of HarperCollins authors (Fourth Estate, Harper Perennial, etc), as they are owned by Murdoch who also owns The Times...

By the way the Guardian has just done Any Human Heart in its book club. They do a book a month which is probably rather more manageable than the Times's rather daunting book-a-week. They also get the author to contribute too, which is cool.
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Old 12th Nov 2006, 19:24   #5
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Default Re: Diary of an Ordinary Woman - Margaret Forster

Thanks for that, JS, will check it out.
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Old 15th Nov 2006, 20:40   #6
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Default Re: Diary of an Ordinary Woman - Margaret Forster

Sorry to hear the half-hearted review as the two books of her's that I have read, I quite liked.

The First was The Seduction of Mrs. Pendlebury, about a cantankerous and somewhat xenophobic old woman who becomes smitten and eventually obsessed with the toddler of the young couple living next door to her.

The other was Lady's Maid, a story told from the pov of Elizabeth Barrett Brownings maid and details the peculiarities of not only EBB abd her affiars but the Ladies Maid' own complicated affairs. I thought it provided an interesting insight into Victorian living and especially the frought relationship that I'm sure existed between Lady and Maid.
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Old 17th Nov 2006, 8:10   #7
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Default Re: Diary of an Ordinary Woman - Margaret Forster

Like you, Leyla, I'd stick at for Diary of an Ordinary Woman. But I would strongly recommend her earlier Have the Men Had Enough? ["Mercilessly exact and unsentimental about the desolation of old age and the barnacles of family life... It is a moving love story, a condemnation of the way we treat our old friends and loves, a rage against the dying of the light" - Philip Howard in The Times] Definitely

I'll look out for Any Human Heart: I've tended to steer clear of William Boyd since struggling with The New Confessions.
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Old 17th Nov 2006, 8:26   #8
leyla
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Default Re: Diary of an Ordinary Woman - Margaret Forster

Thanks, John from Paris, I'll look out for Have The Men Had Enough. I suppose with Diary of an Ordinary Woman consisting almost entirely of diary entries by the one woman, there wasn't much scope for exceptional writing - unless she's been an exceptional woman instead of an ordinary one.
Any Human Heart will have you guffawing one minute and crying the next - definitely worth reading.
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Old 20th Nov 2006, 18:15   #9
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Default Re: Diary of an Ordinary Woman - Margaret Forster

I read Have the Men Had Enough about 10 years ago when I was working in the disability rights field and found it very insightful.

Amusing anecdote: as part of my job at that time, I used to demonstrate an aid we had at our local library called the Reading Edge machine. It could read printed material out loud and we used it for our visually impaired readers.

Anyway, I was doing a talk to the WI or some such and had also taken a copy of Have the Men... with me, amongst other things (including the Reading Edge machine) to show them. They showed scant interest in the book but, when I went to demonstrate the machine, I opened the book at random and scanned it and a Stephen Hawkings voice proclaimed "Of course, they all knew Bridget had a lover..."

One old dear at the back piped up, "What was the name of that book again, dear?"
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Old 20th Nov 2006, 18:19   #10
leyla
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Default Re: Diary of an Ordinary Woman - Margaret Forster

Racey old WI. I've had some respect for them since they slow hand-clapped Hoary Liar a few years back.
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