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Whatever Makes You Happy, by William Sutcliffe
Three little pigs are cleaned up by mum
Friday 02 May 2008
Happiness writes white, it's said, and yet in this doom-laden year it has never been more fashionable, with even Mike Leigh turning out Happy-Go-Lucky. PG Wodehouse and Stella Gibbons both won vast and enduring readerships by addressing themselves to the necessary preconditions for this elusive feeling, and William Sutcliffe follows in their footsteps with this simple but ingenious romantic comedy.
Three middle-aged mothers decide to descend on their hapless, drifting sons for one week in order to sort out their lives. "Just thought I'd pop in," Carol tells Matt, who works on the ladmag BALLS ("The mental age of the reader looked to be about twelve. It was almost a comic. Yet it was all about sex, or rather about breasts.") From then on, it's bachelor hell. Paul, who has not come out to his mother Helen, finds to his horror that his boyfriend has outed him within minutes, though he has another secret which is far more troubling. Daniel, dumped by his one true love Erin for not wanting a baby, gets a crazed divorcee thrust at him. The three mothers, all friends, turn up and tackle everything from an absence of housekeeping to life's deepest problems.
Sutcliffe, the pin-up and chronicler of a generation of young men since Are You Experienced?, has come up with a novel that it will be impossible not to fall in love with. Everyone in my family, from my teen-aged daughter to my husband and mother-in-law, has got something out of it besides laughter: how sons and mothers misunderstand each other; how crucial it is to draw boundaries with those you love; how a roast chicken can sometimes be better than sex; and above all, how important becoming a grown-up is to happiness. Its characters, sharply drawn with an affectionate eye, are almost as good as its jokes, and the swift pace of the action, set in London and Edinburgh, is largely conveyed by dialogue.
There are moments of real pathos, though most readers will revel in the scene when Matt's mother crashes a party for the launch of an aftershave. Carol's doughty respectability includes not just cleaning underneath her son's bed, where she inevitably discovers some kinky sex aids, but providing meals of a kind at odds with Matt's slick, gym-hardened lifestyle. Both she and Daniel's Jewish mother Gillian are gloriously funny creations, especially when trying to set their sons up with new girlfriends; Paul's mother Helen is sadder and tougher, determined to wrest something profound from a revelation about her son's private life. All are drawn with sympathy as well as wit.
The mothers just want their sons to be happy – or to be "true to yourself", which is not always the same thing – but the wisest of them understands something crucial about love, and passes her wisdom on to the son who most needs mothering. If it is improbable that all three would have gained access to their recalcitrant sons so readily, or that problems of the human condition should be so readily solved by a little determination then that, like Jeeves's effect on Wooster, is part of the package. This is a modern fairy-tale, much like The Three Little Pigs, in which one son doesn't get it at all, one son half-gets it, and the third wises up in time to achieve "the pinnacle of happiness" in the form of a wife and baby son. Whether or not you agree with that formula, the novel is pure delight.
Amanda Craig's most recent novel is 'Love in Idleness' (Abacus)
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