Changes in the frame as the kin turn kinky

Carol Birch can predict the punch-lines in a cartoon-like family comedy. But she'd rather draw her own conclusions
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Two Kinds of Wonderful by Isla Dewar (Review, £9.99, 343pp)

Two Kinds of Wonderful by Isla Dewar (Review, £9.99, 343pp)

All families are unhappy. If not, they are either terminally boring or deluding themselves. Such is the ethos of this bitter little comedy from the popular Scottish writer, Isla Dewar. The only solution is dissolution or a leap into the wild blue yonder, a family version of the student's urge to see India, circa 1967.

Roz is "a wanton and disgraceful woman" who, ten years earlier, walked out on two teenage children and her husband of 16 years. Now in her forties, she has reverted to teenagerdom, living in a pigsty, getting pissed and sleeping in, while working as a cartoonist for a dreadful family-values magazine. She is responsible for the Beseleys, a fantasy "ideal" family, in which Mum is a fatuously contented doormat.

Following the funeral of her feisty, well-loved mother-in-law, Nan, Roz finds herself invaded in her London flat by her adult Edinburgh offspring: lazy Jamie, who takes up residence on the couch, and wild Zoe, beautiful and promiscuous and on the rebound from her own fragile attempt at family.

Sub-plots abound. Roz goes to Mull to scatter Nan's ashes. She enjoys a wholly unconvincing passion with her daughter's partner. Nan's dashing past is revealed. Minor characters are sketched in, aptly cartoon-like: the ridiculous young fogey Roz works for, and his secretary, an archetypally plain Jane prone to metaphorically flinging off her glasses.

Being interesting is signalled by doing things like U-turns on motorways, house-wrecking, and that old favourite, sex with strangers in train toilets. Boringness is marked by tidiness, prurience and inhibition. The erring wife is a pioneer, the dumped husband cardboard to such a degree that the reader has a hard time imagining how anyone could ever have fancied him.

The hated Matthew's "sin" of boringness is characterised primarily by a habit of obsessive counting: stairs, buttons, the number of times he polishes the inside of the hubcaps of his car. Clearly, this man has an obsessive-compulsive disorder.

But this is a lightweight book and it's best to take it as a cartoon, like the poor Beseleys. Roz is determined to drag them screaming into the modern age which, alas, means making them miserable; or rather, all apart from Mum. Tears, eating disorders, three-day sulks: the unfortunate Beseleys undergo a transformation from the Waltons to EastEnders in a few weeks, till Roz lets them come over all new-age supportive.

The main dynamic is Roz's burgeoning relationship with her adult children, and a general maturing. It's predictable. We know from about page 20 that Roz will end up with nice Fred-in-the-background, that she will make peace with her children, that emotional justice will prevail, and that all will end on a whacky, heartwarming high. As it does.

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