Reviewed by Victoria
It’s a hot early autumn in 1964 small-town America, in the up-and-coming Elm Grove estate (featuring house types named Charmer, Enchantress and El Dorado, in order to help people actually live inside their aspirations). Ted McDougall is a car tyre salesman for Goodyear on the brink of his first major deal. His thoughts, as he dresses for the all-important dinner with his potential client, are excited and self-congratulatory. Ted’s a rising star in his office, a man with all the material ambitions a young American in the 60s should have, and the only flaw in his admirable landscape is the lack of recognition he gets from his wife and her family. It reminds him of the way his mother under-estimated him all the time, never gave him the benefit of the doubt. Ted and Abigail married very young, because that was what everyone else was doing, and now they have a ten-month-old daughter, Mindy. They’re right on track when it comes to social competitiveness, but underneath the happy convention, trouble is brewing.
Abigail is struggling to embrace the domestic goddess role. Cooking and cleaning are not really her thing, and whilst she loves her baby girl, the demands of new motherhood are shockingly restrictive. There’s a hint of post-natal depression here, though the sleep deprivation and anxiety of early parenthood, the lack of real friends or family around her and the loss of study time would be sufficient reasons for Abigail’s gloom. She has the nature and passion of an academic scholar, obsessed with American history and longing for the intellectual work of research. Abigail comes fron a family of lawyers, people who already have the recipe for a good life in their devotion to work and to public service. Somehow, Abigail has ended up out of her natural environment and for all her brave attempts to fit in, it really isn’t working.
And so Ted goes out to his important dinner, and when the client wants to go and find some girls afterwards, he’s honor-bound to follow him. It turns out this is what successful men do, and they don’t feel it’s anything less than they’re entitled to. Ted understands his role as a good husband and father, and when he meets pretty, young insurance clerk, Penny, his interest in her is at first nothing more than superficial. He likes being with someone who looks up to him so effortlessly and genuinely, he loves the way she is interested in him, unlike Abigail, who is stockpiling resentments, and it’s fun to go dancing with her and hang out with her friends at her shared apartment.
Well, you can see where this story is headed, and you won’t be mistaken. But what makes it such a cut above the average adultery novel is the sheer quality of the narrative. There’s a fantastic recreation of the 60s era, detailed, utterly convincing and as atmospheric as an Edward Hopper painting. The narrative hops between the heads of the three main protagonists, inhabiting the close third person, and from this sympathetic position we gain brilliant character portraits that resist easy judgements. And underlying this story is an autobiographical resonance. Author Susan Beale wrote the novel with her own family situation in mind, and maybe it’s this direct link to the problems and hypocrisies of the era, just before the sexual revolution altered society forever, that gives it such a zip and a zing.
I found myself fascinated by the character of Ted who, whilst believing he is the good guy of the title, is going to turn out to be a terrible cad. But inside his head, Ted is doing nothing more than tidying up his self-image the way any ambitious male would. Ted has struggled all his life against his own insufficiency, having lost his brother, Danny, the son his parents favoured, at a young age. Ted is entranced by his public image and the aura of success he’s gaining, and we readers understand that it feels as alien and hypnotic to him as the fantasy life he begins to construct with Penny. It’s natural, then, to embellish that fantasy life, his other life, with all his unmet longings.
The Ted Penny knew had travelled to more places, read more books and knew more interesting people. He had put himself through college at the University of Colorado, playing football and working for ski patrol; spent time in the service and done a stint in Vietnam with the CIA. And the truly amazing thing, the really beautiful thing, was how real it felt. His pulse raced as he described out-skiing an avalanche in the Rockies, or walking through a swamp on patrol in Nam. […] Every fib put a little layer of insulation between regular Ted and Penny’s Ted until, in his mind, they became distinct and separate. Life was simultaneously fuller and less complicated.
What I loved about this novel was the depth of its psychological insight, which never got in the way of the story but just enhanced it. Also noteworthy is the way we are drawn into a very different culture, one in which women were readily medicated if they didn’t behave the way their husbands thought they should, and in which respectability was a price always paid by women. Extremely well-written, intelligent and perceptive, this also happens to be a novel that slips down like ice-cream on a hot day. I absolutely loved it.
Victoria is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.
Read Victoria’s Q&A with Susan in our BookBuzz section here.
Susan Beale, The Good Guy (John Murray, 2016). 978-1473630338, 320 pp., hardback.
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