When Eva and Brian's precocious twins, Brian Junior and Brianna, depart for university, their mother starts clearing up. She finds a dirty soup spoon casually left on the arm of a chair she had spent two years embroidering. She flips, throws the remains of the tomato soup all over the chair and takes to her bed. And there she stays.
Before long, that chair and her bed are all that remain in her empty white room. Brian is outraged to be cast domestically adrift, although, as Eva soon discovers, he has been conducting a lengthy affair with a sturdy fellow astronomer named Titania Noble-Forester. (Brian is, however, no Lothario. "In the football league of lovers," muses Titania, "he is Accrington Stanley." When he takes two Viagra, she thinks one would have sufficed so she could have finished the ironing.) The terrible twins, meanwhile, hatch a plot to destroy the world, and Eva wonders whether post-natal depression can last for 17 years.
Into Eva's room, and onto the soup-chair, comes a richly comic cast. There is Eva's mother Ruby, who could be Adrian Mole's aunty; Brian's mother, who thoughtfully brings her an advanced dot-to-dot book; the bossy district nurse, whose glasses suggest "an optician sympathetic to the Nazi aesthetic" but who can reliably be comforted by confectionery; an elderly, rather charming, disfigured Spitfire pilot; and Alexander.
Alexander is a dreadlocked ex-banker who falls for Eva. He is great. "I always cut my toenails over a page torn from the London Review of Books" he remarks. "Doesn't everyone?" asks Eva. As her watchdog, he sifts through the crowd of no-hopers forming outside her door, all needing favours from this newly identified bedridden saint. Her sanctity is confirmed when an Indian couple discern Eva's face miraculously depicted in a chapatti: they varnish it, in devotional awe. It's all too much for Eva, who is nursing a sad secret, and she becomes ever more reclusive.
Caroline Quentin's reading begins a bit shoutily, but develops into a subtle and touching performance at the same time that it becomes clear Sue Townsend's remarkable gifts for storytelling and for creating hilarious characters are tempered by a warm, perceptive and affectionate humanity. Townsend's people aren't monsters, and this lovely book begins and ends with what must be her credo: that to do the best we can in this difficult life, we simply have to be kind.
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