I had read a few reviews of this book, and then a friend lent me the book with the comment, “I’d love to know what you make of this one…”
The day her twins leave home, Eva climbs into bed and stays there. For seventeen years she’s wanted to yell at the world, ‘Stop! I want to get off!’ Finally, this is her chance. Her husband, Brian, an astronomer having an unsatisfactory affair, is upset. Who will cook his dinner? Eva, he complains, is attention-seeking. But word of Eva’s defiance spreads. Legions of fans, believing she is protesting, gather in the street, while her new friend, Alexander the white-van man brings tea, toast and an unexpected sympathy. And from this odd but comfortable place, Eva begins to see both herself and the world very, very differently…
It’s clear that humour is highly subjective. Comments on the front cover declare I laughed until I cried and Glorious laugh-out-loud. Several reviews particularly mention the ‘delicious humour’ and other similar phrases. However, I found the book achingly sad. Eva Beaver has endured seventeen years of non-stop toil looking after twins she didn’t really enjoy and a husband she stopped loving eleven minutes after the wedding ceremony. She takes to her bed in sick disgust at finding her embroidered chair smeared with tomato soup – and then cannot find the will to get up again.
It was not unknown in Victorian England for able-bodied women to retreat to their beds, where middle- and upper-class women were not required to do much, except look decorative and produce babies. But they had a staff of servants to wait on them hand, foot and finger – and Eva hasn’t. Her husband, Brian, announces that she is being utterly selfish and attention-seeking in going to bed and leaving everyone else to keep the home going. She won’t even feed herself and there are some fairly revolting discussions where she considers not even leaving the bed to use the toilet – but decides that she has to continue to use the en suite as no one else will consider dealing with her waste.
Her seventy-something mother, Ruby, and her mother in law Yvonne both end up stepping in and providing her with food and drink and keeping Brian’s laundry going, while the twins – floundering at university – find they cannot contact their mother on the phone. There are some amusing moments, particularly in the first half of the book. But as the situation continues and Eva steadfastly refuses to budge, despite her whole family falling apart, I found the spiralling situation less funny and more verging on the desperate. It seemed that Eva was refusing to move until she had processed every meaningful experience she’d had to date – good and bad, and come to some sort of decision.
The terrible irony, for me, is that her final insight was too late. Whether or not she’d intended her retreat to be an act of hostility, that is what it became – and when her concluding realisation set in, I got the sense that everyone around her was just relieved that she would be leaving. Eva becomes a footnote in her own life – so that even the brief flurry of publicity that her act inspired also dies down and the crowds melt away.
Townsend, I think, is attempting to examine what makes a family function – and what it takes to rip it apart. While she tests the Beaver family to destruction, there are some shafts of humour. However, as everyone is mercilessly exposed under Townsend’s blistering gaze, with their vanities, prejudices, self-absorption and criminality on full display, I found it hard to care or really engage with any single person – maybe with the exception of Alexander – while increasingly pitying them all.
And the message I took away from the book, was that Family, however inadequate and cruel, is the main refuge for all of us. While the price of conforming in order to avail ourselves of that refuge is often cripplingly high. By the savagely ironic end, I was tempted to cry, alright – but they certainly weren’t tears of laughter…