REVIEW: Getting It Right by Elizabeth Jane Howard
A London hairdresser’s life begins to change dramatically when he meets two very different women at a party in this delightful social comedy.
Thirty-one-year-old Gavin Lamb is a shy hairdresser in London’s West End. Self-educated, he likes Mozart and can quote Tolstoy, but being something of a late bloomer, he still lives at home with his parents. Although he’s a master of the styling chair, he simply can’t work out how to be around women—not least his own mother. And the misguided efforts of his best friend, Harry King, don’t do much to assuage Gavin’s unfulfilled dreams of love.
One night, he reluctantly attends a party where the hostess, Joan, is a grotesque vision in an orange wig and silver lamé. Joan is rich and married, and Gavin soon finds himself opening up to her. That same night, he meets Minerva Munday, who’s taking a nap on one of the guest beds. Minerva crashed the party and claims to hail from a royal bloodline.
Both Joan and Minerva—polar opposites—will transform Gavin’s life in ways a lot more exciting than his nightly fantasies. But true love continues to elude him. Will he ever get it right?
The bestselling author of the Cazalet Chronicles has written a witty and perceptive comic novel that went on to win the Yorkshire Post Novel of the Year Award and inspire the 1989 film starring Jesse Birdsall, Jane Horrocks, and Helena Bonham Carter. A man looking for love in all the wrong places, Gavin may come to realize his soul mate has been in front of him all along.
Dear Ms. Howard,
I initially decided to try this novel due to the “shy hairdresser” description of the hero. So many books today feature millionaires and billionaires and gazillionaires so it’s a nice change to read about a working class guy. I also wondered how a 1982 book would hold up.
So yes, Gavin is from a working class background but through dint of his efforts at educating himself, he ‘s climbed the social rung to lower middle class, as hilariously pointed out by Minerva Mundy. But he’s decided to keep his accent. Having read “Watching the English” by Kate Fox, I know a little about what this means. As well, it helped me understand Gav’s mum and dad, two thoroughly working class parents, and how fascinated Mrs. Lamb would be about Minerva.
Gavin has sort of drifted through life up to this point. He’s 31 and still living with his parents. He works long hours at a salon for a boss he despises and with some (a few) clients he can’t stand. He only passive aggressively stands up for himself there while at home neither he nor his father have the guts to stand up to his mother’s gentle bulldozing of the household. Gavin’s got his own room fixed up as he likes with all his books and classical records and this is really the only thing that is his and under his control.
He drifts to a party with his Gay friend Harry and some of Harry’s friends as well as the young man Harry adores but with whom Harry has a violent physical relationship. This depiction of a Gay couple might annoy some while it might fascinate others as it stretches back to an era just before HIV. I also found it refreshing that there is never any negativity about the LGBTQIA characters nor condemnation of their lifestyle.
Gavin drifts – something he does a lot of – into a conversation with Joan, the woman hosting the party, and finds to his astonishment that she doesn’t frighten him. Gavin, as mentioned before, is painfully shy and introverted and views even people he knows as slightly intimidating if he has to socialize with them so a party of strangers is a place he expected to wish to escape within 2 minutes.
Later, still at the party, he unintentionally hooks up with Minerva Mundy, a young woman of limpet like qualities and obvious social difference from Gavin. In Gavin’s opinion, she fits in with the idle, silly rich party goers even if many of them seem to despise her. The book is full of these class distinctions though it is fairly even handed in how it shows that it is not this which makes a person worthy or not. In fact, most of the upper middle class are shown as shallow snobs.
Gavin’s life gets turned upside down over the course of the next few weeks. We see his work life, his family life and his interactions with Joan, Minerva and with a young assistant hairdresser at his salon whom he’s never really noticed until now. Minerva is feckless, often sulky and obviously unable to cope with life. Joan is rich, and experienced but though she likes Gavin, she’s deeply in love with a man who doesn’t love her back. Jenny turns out to be quite different from what Gavin expected – matured by something in her life of which he had no knowledge – and he starts to help her expand her horizons by giving her books to read, playing his classical music for her and showing her paintings. She and I agree about Handel’s “Zadok the Priest.”
But while I’m enjoying watching the “slice of life” detail of Gavin’s life and the feeling of immediacy with the characters and descriptions, there’s a lot that ends up not really being settled. Or maybe that wasn’t ever the point to follow all the characters to a finished ending? We just see them for literally about a month and though the last glimpse of some is not pretty or “up in the air,” we’re never going to be told what happens next. Even with Gavin’s ultimate decision about what relationship to pursue, we’re left more or less at the beginning of it with, frankly, not a lot to encourage us to think it will lead to a romance standard HEA. As a peek at early 1980s social life in England, it’s lovely. As the type of romance I’d hope for based on the blurb, not so much. B-