The school gate is the modern equivalent to the village well, and Gill Hornby has chosen it for the setting of her first novel. St Ambrose Primary School is the place where a group of mums meet not only to deposit their children each term but to gossip, fund-raise, and socialise. As any mother will know, what looks like a benign, sisterly forum is often anything but, and thanks to Beatrice, the queen bee of the hive, the prevailing spirit is more Mean Girls than Desperate Housewives.
Structured around the school year, from autumn to autumn, and between "drop-off" and "pick-up", the group moves through personal challenges and crises. Rachel, the most engaging, is a writer and illustrator of children's books dumped by her husband; her mortification and misery help her to keep her distance – but so does being dropped by Bea.
A rich "newbie", Bubba, who has moved her child from private to state sector, annoys everyone by showing too much enthusiasm, and is humiliated when the winter fund-raising ball in her pretentious home goes horribly wrong. Georgie, the only one who still has sex with her husband, a farmer, lives in insouciant squalor after giving up her job as a lawyer. Heather, fat and frumpy, gets a makeover and is taken up by Bea. But what is the attractive, glamorous Melissa doing in the mix, and which of the women will hook up with the sexy new headmaster?
The lives of mothers is an aspect of contemporary existence which writers of the calibre of Helen Simpson, Alison Lurie and Rachel Cusk have carved out as their own. What seems familiar and unremarkable becomes anything but when examined attentively, especially through the eyes of women who have enjoyed the autonomy of a career. Yet those who have abandoned bread-winning for child-rearing can also find, like Georgie, that "life now was one of pure, fine, distilled creativity" that brought "a depth of satisfaction she had never before known".
In the "happy family" of St Ambrose, women find their time poisoned by rivalries and cliques, but the difficulties of combining motherhood with earning a living are not explored. Whether or not they are fat or have large kitchens may strike a chord, though not, perhaps, with many whose children are at state schools. However, plenty will identify with the phenomenon of the "Queen Bee", and Hornby skewers her with venom.
In between, she notices how children begin the school year "trimmed and polished and shiny, but the mothers looked about as groomed as Robinson Crusoe", before the situation is reversed; it's a pity there isn't more of this sharp, sympathetic observation as it plays to the author's strengths. The nicknaming of herbal tea as "lesbian", and reference to gay women (even in the school quiz) might have been expected to blossom into an interesting sub-plot, given how fixated the women are on Bea's appearance, but remains unexplored.
As the success of Mumsnet shows, thousands, if not millions of mothers do need each other's help, advice, sympathy and support to survive the trials of raising young children. Alas, the women here are too poorly defined to offer us consolation or even laughter. It's hard to remember whether Georgie or Heather is the outspoken one, and both Heather and Rachel seem to find only babies rather than children delightful. Their husbands are vague presences or absences, yet we are supposed to care that one meets a shocking end.
Even more surprising is the lack of individuation of their children, around whom the lives of these mothers are supposed to revolve. The abiding impression is of a group of women more preoccupied with makeovers, Pilates and competitive lunching menus than anything else. They probably exist, but whether any reader would choose them for company is another matter.
Amanda Craig's novels include 'Hearts and Minds', and the re-issued 'A Private Place' (Abacus)
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