Arrow £7.99 (238pp) from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
Truth to Tell by Mavis Cheek
Friday 03 June 2011
Nina Porter is being driven to distraction by her husband Robert's self-righteous rants on the subject of evil bankers and corrupt politicians. According to Nina, the world wouldn't go round without the odd porky-pie. In a bid to illustrate what a fib-free life might actually look like, Nina determines to spend a week telling the truth. But as Cheek's high concept farce so winningly points out, honesty isn't always the best solution.
Nina's first act of truthfulness cuts to the very heart of her marriage. After years of accompanying her husband to Florida on an annual office jolly, she declares she's always hated the trip, and will no longer be joining him. It's only when it comes to waving him off at the airport that her irritation recedes: "I wished him to Hell. But mostly I really loved him. Not that he deserved it. I loathed him. I loved him. Well, one or the other."
Back in West London, Nina prepares herself for yet another tricky truth-telling encounter - a lunch date with best friend, Toni. Currently in the throws of an extra-martial affair, Toni is anxious for her friend's approval. Nina, who has always found Toni's inamorata "utterly boring", "deeply unattractive", possibly even "creepy", feels suddenly impelled to let rip over the chilled prosecco.
Much like Barbara Pym's "excellent women", Cheek's heroines have long valued honesty over affectation and feminine wiles, and Nina is no exception. Having alienated both her husband and best friend, she turns to her ever-understanding boss, the candidly camp Brando. Collaborators on a series of tourist guides, Brando insists that Nina join him for some hands-on-research in duplicitous Venice.
Nina's sourjorn in La Serenissisma proves the highlight of the book, creating the perfect setting for the kind of romantic muddles at which Cheek excels. On her first night there, Nina finds herself approached in the piazza by a distinguished looking Venetian, keen to join her in a Campari and soda. Seduced by "The Italian's" good teeth and gracious manners she finds herself spending the next few days in his well-informed company.
The novel's comic denouement finds Nina alone with her suitor in a hotel bedroom. Being true to herself might mean one thing, while being true to her husband, something entirely else. As Cheek's fourteenth novel so delicately shows, the naked truth can leave even the most virtuously-inclined rudely exposed.
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