A Nice Change – Nina Bawden (1997) 192 pages
Although I wouldn’t describe Nina Bawden as a comfort read – she is far too sharply observant for that – it was with some relief that I started A Nice Change, after the traumas of The Gold-Rimmed Spectacles yesterday. A middle-class comedy of manners amongst holidaymakers in Greece sounded free of serious consequence and therefore just the ticket.
The story opens with solicitor Amy arriving in Athens airport with her husband Tom, a Labour MP, who has spotted his ex-mistress Portia heading to the same hotel as them:
“What the hell is she doing here? What the hell can he do? Amy has booked (a package deal, paid in advance) this reportedly comfortable hotel entirely for his benefit. She hates lying around pools, or on beaches, is bored by rich food as she is bored by rich people, likes to keep on the move when she travels. But he has just had a small but humiliating operation that made bicycling around Brittany, their earlier, energetic plan for this summer fortnight, out of the question.”
Despite being a philandering politician, Tom isn’t especially despicable. He’s not especially likable either. He’s just a middle-aged man worried about his waistline, dissatisfied at work but feeling too old to start anything new. He’s recognisable and ordinary, rather than a moustache-twirling villain.
“He could never again think of himself as an honest man. (There is a certain enjoyment in this self-abasement that he acknowledges occasionally, even though most of the time he prefers to see it as a decent humility.)”
Amy, on the other hand, seems quite a decent and caring person.
“Now it is only with Tom that she feels these physical characteristics to be shameful, disabling. With other people (more often with women than men) she is unselfconscious, competent, kindly, a good listener, even a good talker, on rare occasions quite witty. Well, cheery, anyway, she corrects herself.”
She is aware of Tom’s affair and knows it is over. She doesn’t want to know any details, so Tom spends the holiday worrying that Amy will discover who Portia is. Tom’s charming father arrives too, adding to his concerns.
Alongside these domestic woes are the other guests: Mr and Mrs Boot, an older couple who refer to each other as Mother and Daddy belying Mr Boot’s somewhat less-than-paternal traits; lovely young doctor Prudence Honey (ha!) awaiting the arrival of her extrovert grandmother; grieving widower Philip; and some mysterious elderly female twins, who Amy thinks look vaguely familiar…
Bawden is a great social observer, but never harshly judgemental:
“Connection thus established, they nod, and smile, and make various other small facial gestures to express friendly intentions towards each other and amused dismay at the suddenly crowded bar; every seat taken and not even much standing room since several of the newcomers have crutches or zimmer frames which they deploy cunningly to give them extra floor space.”
Although it’s a novella, Bawden handles all the characters expertly and none felt under-explored to me. There are various mysteries around the guests which gradually come to light without feeling contrived, and I thoroughly enjoyed my time at Hotel Parthenon.