Lizzie Vogel, whom we first met aged nine in Stibbe’s novel, Man at the Helm (reviewed here), is now eighteen: it’s 1979 and she is ready to find a proper full time job. She’s had some practice: when she was fifteen, she worked as a nursing auxiliary, recounted in a second volume, Paradise Lodge (reviewed here). Stibbe’s first two Lizzie Vogel novels were gentle comedies, but written with a laser eye skewering all that was good and bad about life in the Midlands in the 1970s, with semi-autobiographical detail from Stibbe’s own growing up. Naturally, I wanted to see what happened next in Lizzie’s life, the three novels forming a trilogy.
It is perfectly possible to read and enjoy Reasons to be Cheerful without having read the previous two books. The recurring characters are few, mainly limited to Lizzie’s family members and Mr Holt, (her mother’s partner who was the result of Man at the Helm). However, you’ll want to find out more about Lizzie’s highly-strung mother in particular who is such a wonderful character. So, read this first by all means, but I hope you do go back to the beginning of the trilogy, for the young Lizzie’s adventures are brilliant. Reasons to be Cheerful won the 2019 Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize for Comic Fiction, and on my hardback copy, Caitlin Moran says that Stibbe is: ‘The true heir to Sue Townsend.’ which strikes me as a pretty accurate statement.
Reasons to be Cheerful begins with an hilarious prologue that sets the scene beautifully for the novel to follow. JP Wintergreen, dental surgeon, is about to extract two teeth and fit a temporary denture – on himself! But intolerance to the anaesthetic only gives him a few minutes before he fumbles and breaks the tooth! JP asks his nurse to ring Bill Tanner, the dentist from up the road, but Lizzie, his dental nurse, has to collect her little brother from nursery:
I looked at the clock. I hadn’t got time to wait for Bill.
‘Sit down,’ I said, pulling the Medi Light across.
Just as she ended up having to take charge of things at the nursing home, Lizzie is a quick learner as a dental nurse. Yes, Lizzie’s coming of age story is set around a dental practice. Yes, there will be abscesses, more extractions and plenty of dentures, so if you’re squeamish about teeth, I’m giving you fair warning!
Lizzie, having found out about the job and blagged her way into it, moves from her family home in the countryside to the city – Leicester. It’s another world, but installed into the flat above the surgery, she determines to make a go of it.
Tammy, JP’s previous dental nurse, an American woman in her late thirties, is on hand to show Lizzie the ropes, and tell her about JP’s habits. For instance, when he needs a smoke between patients, Lizzie will have to hold the small cigar for him, so his hands won’t smell! JP is a terrible bore, he is desperate to become a freemason, like fellow dentist Bill Tanner up the road, whom he is cultivating. He is also desperate to continue his bloodline – his son has had the snip due his girlfriend already having three kids. JP is expecting Tammy, who is moving in with him, to take on motherhood to do this, marriage has been promised. There’s also the fact that JP is a rubbish dentist, a xenophobe and terrible snob – which never goes down well in multicultural Leicester.
But what of Lizzie? Well, she falls in love properly for the first time, with the technician from the dentures service.
‘Hello,’ said the young man, ‘I think we’ve met before.’ I squinted at him. ‘Andy Nicolello,’ he said. ‘I live near Kilmington.’ I didn’t speak. I couldn’t quite believe my eyes. Andy Nicolello was a laboratory technician. It was like seeing Stig of the Dump all cleaned up in a suit.
So between Lizzie and Andy’s romance, in which neither of them knows how to progress to the next stage, the continuing intrusion of Lizzie’s mother into her life and all the shenanigans with Tammy and JP, the scene is set for some more marvellous comedy episodes, but also for heartache. I can’t say more on that, but Stibbe’s sure touch combines everything in to a coherent whole that carries you along with Lizzie’s ups and downs.
By the end of the novel, and trilogy, it is no surprise that Lizzie is ready to spread her wings further. Stibbe herself went on to nanny in London, writing her debut book, the wonderfully comic memoir Dear Nina, about that time. One suspects that Lizzie would do the same, but we won’t get to hear about it. Provincial life in the 1970s has been proved to be a hit combination for Stibbe, it’s certainly been a great nostalgia trip for me, where will she look next for inspiration?
Annabel is one of the Shiny editors, and was a teenager through the 1970s just like Lizzie.
Nina Stibbe, Reasons to be Cheerful (Penguin, 2019). 978-0241974988, , 275pp., paperback.BUY at Blackwell’s via our affiliate link (free UK P&P)