Small pleasures A novel

Clare Chambers

Book - 2021

When Gretchen Tilbury claims that her daughter is the result of a virgin birth, Jean Swinney, a feature writer on a local paper, sets out to prove whether Gretchen is a miracle or a fraud-an investigation that sends dark ripples across all their lives with unimaginable consequences.

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1st Floor FICTION/Chambers Clare Checked In
Historical fiction
Domestic fiction
New York, NY : Custom House [2021]
Main Author
Clare Chambers (author)
First U.S. edition
Item Description
"Originally published in the United Kingdom in 2020 by Weidenfeld & Nicolson"--title page verso.
Physical Description
345 pages ; 24 cm
Contents unavailable.
Review by Booklist Review

Can Gretchen Tilbury's tale about her 10-year-old daughter be true, and if so, how is it scientifically possible? In 1957, reporter Jean Swinney, 40, has a tedious home life caring for her irritable, reclusive mother. In investigating a claim of parthenogenesis, a virgin birth, for her suburban London newspaper, Jean sees her world unexpectedly transformed. Surprisingly, she finds no apparent holes in Gretchen's story. Gretchen had been bedridden in a clinic alongside others when Margaret was conceived. As mother and daughter undergo laboratory tests to prove or debunk the hypothesis, Jean's intrinsic loneliness leads her to respond to the Tilburys' friendly overtures. Margaret is a charming girl, and Howard, Gretchen's older husband, has a disarming manner that attracts Jean. As Jean's personal and professional circles become enmeshed, the plot takes dramatic, even shocking turns. British novelist Chambers penetrates the secret hopes and passionate inner lives of ordinary working people throughout her gripping novel, while its locked-room medical mystery calls to mind Emma Donoghue's The Wonder (2016). The characters provoke so much empathy, readers may have trouble remembering that they're fictional.

From Booklist, Copyright (c) American Library Association. Used with permission.
Review by Publisher's Weekly Review

In Chambers's affecting latest (after the YA mystery Burning Secrets), the year is 1957 and Jean Swinney is a single Englishwoman approaching 40 who cares for her demanding mother and lives for the small pleasures in life--like pottering in her vegetable patch or loosening her girdle at the end of the day. Jean works as features editor for the North Kent Echo. Her new assignment is to interview Gretchen Tilbury, who claims to have delivered a child through virgin birth. Wanting to keep an open mind, Jean meets with the no-nonsense Gretchen, who was confined to an all-female nursing home, St. Cecilia's, with rheumatoid arthritis at the time of conception. Jean also meets Gretchen's charming 10-year-old daughter, Margaret, and her dedicated husband, Howard. Jean arranges for Gretchen and Margaret to undergo medical tests at Charing Cross Hospital to prove if parthenogenesis actually took place. As the months pass, Jean becomes more and more enmeshed in the lives of the Tilbury family even as her friendship with Howard threatens to turn into something more. Chambers does an excellent job of recreating the austere texture of post-WWII England. In Jean, the author creates a character who strives admirably to escape her cloistered existence. Chambers plays fair with Gretchen's mystery, tenderly illuminating the hidden yearnings of small lives. (Oct.)

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Review by Library Journal Review

In late 1950s England, nearly 40 Jean Swinney is resigned to her scant opportunities as a reporter at a local paper in London's southeastern suburbs and the ongoing burdens of caring for a querulous widowed mother. Then young Gretchen Tilbury contacts the paper, claiming that her daughter resulted from a virgin birth, and Jean senses a career-making story. Soon, she's intimately involved with the Tilbury family as well. A huge hit in the UK; with a 50,000-copy first printing.

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Review by Kirkus Book Review

In the spirit of Barbara Pym's novels and the classic film Brief Encounters, Chambers provides an updated portrait of the vaunted British upper lip and its associated postwar values. When the suburban North Kent Echo runs a story on parthenogenesis in small animals, it gets a curious letter to the editor in response: "I have always believed my own daughter (now ten) to have been born without the involvement of any man," writes Mrs. Gretchen Tilbury of Sidcup. When the opportunity arises to investigate this intriguing virgin birth, Jean Swinney is eager to take on the assignment; it will be a nice distraction from her usual humdrum work. Given the social patterns of 1950s Britain, Jean's beat consists chiefly of feature pieces of appeal to housewives, money-saving tips, recipes, and the like. Jean's personal life is equally nonstimulating, as she shares a joyless home with her agoraphobic and needy mother, and she finds a welcome respite in her growing attachment to the Tilbury family. As clues to the mystery of "Our Lady of Sidcup" gradually reveal themselves to Jean, she finds herself in a relationship that might provide her with a last chance at domestic contentment. An awareness of the high cost of that potential happiness weighs heavily on Jean, and a bittersweet aura pervades Chambers' gentle sketch of an unassuming, highly intelligent woman daring to contravene convention. In a departure from similar, yet tamer, depictions of postwar English life, Chambers acknowledges a broad range of human experience. Jean's foibles, along with those of her irksome mother and other characters, are presented with sympathy, but readers in search of comfortable solutions will have to reassess their need to tie everything up with a vintage-style bow. Chambers' tone is sweet, which is not the same as saccharine. Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.