Wednesday, 14 April 2010

Getting the Stakes Right

Before Madeleine Wickham became Sophie Kinsella she wrote 6 novels, one of which was A Desirable Residence. It came out in 1996, a time when people were still dealing with the property price collapse of the early 1990s, there were many redundancies and interest rates shot went to 15%.

I can remember two things about the book; firstly reading a review which went along the lines of "woman wants big house: so what?" And secondly, one of the main characters being obsessed with getting her child into a particular fee-paying school with a scholarship. Not because they needed the scholarship to afford the school, but because the woman wanted the prestige. I've never forgotten it because it seemed a seriously daft thing to want. I mean, I can see why you might want to send your child to a private school, but to obsess over getting a scholarship when you had the money?

Compare with Joanna Trollope's The Rector's Wife of about the same time. Here the main character wants her child to go to a private school because she's being bullied at the local school. The mother works in a supermarket stacking shelves to achieve her aims, despite the disapproval of the local community - and her husband. It was a huge bestseller, the one that established Joanna Trollope, and was made into a very successful television series.

Two characters wanting roughly the same thing, but the reasons why they want it couldn't be more different. One yearns to help her bullied child, the other wants the snob appeal.

Reading the book again I realise Wickham's character, Anthea, was probably given such an unattractive obsession by the writer because she was married to the hero, who was going to have an affair. I don't know this was the case, but I can see the logic: make the wife unsympathetic as justification for the straying husband. The trouble is, the stakes are so wrong and out of tune, it makes him appear a twit for putting up with her. And he's going to have the affair with the woman who wants the big house.

It's hard to feel sympathetic for the Wickham characters, but they show us writers an important lesson. The stakes have to be right - a mother's desire to help her child is fairly universal, and we approve of it. Snobbery, which if we're honest is probably equally universal, is a darn sight less sympathetic. I know which I'd rather read about.

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