A New York Times Book Review Notable Book of the Year
It was the year after Chappaquiddick, and all spring Carmel McBain had watery dreams about the disaster. Now she, Karina, and Julianne were escaping the dreary English countryside for a London University hall of residence. Interspersing accounts of her current position as a university student with recollections of her childhood and an ever difficult relationship with her longtime schoolmate Karina, Carmel reflects on a generation of girls desiring the power of men, but fearful of abandoning what is expected and proper. When these bright but confused young women land in late 1960s London, they are confronted with a slew of new preoccupations—sex, politics, food, and fertility—and a pointless grotesque tragedy of their own.
Hilary Mantel's magnificent novel examines the pressures on women during the early days of contemporary feminism to excel--but not be too successful--in England's complex hierarchy of class and status.
"Carmel McBain, the Anglo-Catholic narrator of Hilary Mantel's seventh novel, calls it a story about appetite—the appetite of girls from social and religious backgrounds in which it is customary to thwart female ambition and desire. This coming of age novel renders the narrow world of convent school—aertex blouses, Lourdes medals, the 'queasy mass of processed peas and tinned apricots' for lunch—in precise and oppressive detail. Carmel tries to move beyond all that, but feels ambivalent too, and struggles with anorexia before settling into suburban housewifery. There is little comfort to be taken from the story of Carmel's ultimately uncertain efforts to make a place for herself that is free of the isolation and jealousy of familiar class-bound England, but Mantel's lovely prose and dark humor, together with her irony and her hard-headed view of the tragedies of childhood, make this a stunning book."—The Boston Review
"Although Mantel is well known and highly praised in England, this is only the second of her seven novels to be published in the United States. As it begins, middle-aged, affluent suburbanite Carmel McBain sees a photo of her college roommate in the morning paper and flashes back to her first day at university, where she is asked to choose between the other two Holy Redeemer graduates attending her college. She picks Julianna, a popular and pampered girl, over her fellow scholarship student, Karina. Carmel's 'experiment in love' is multifaceted. It begins with her mother's desire to change the working-class Catholic girl from Lancaster into a typical English lady—an experiment that both succeeds and fails, as each of Carmel's successes widens the chasm between mother and daughter. The young college women also experiment with love and sex, as members of the first generation to claim the Pill as their birthright, and with sisterhood as they explore the relationship between self-interest and care of their neighbors."—Debbie Bogenschutz, Cincinnati Technical College, Library Journal
"Carmel McBain is a bright Lancashire-Irish child whose mother is fond of telling her, 'your father's not just a clerk, you know'—though, in fact, he is. As Carmel grows up, this snobbish tendency metamorphoses into the brutal driving force of the girl's young life. As a teenager, with ambition bullied into her, she alternates between nights spent locked in her room to study and days filled with the 'routine sarcasms of nuns.' Carmel's move from posh convent to London university is a lonely one; at school, she undergoes a disturbing loss of self-awareness. Between her mother's ruthlessness and the cruelties of the nuns, Carmel's self-worth has been damaged, with near fatal results. Mantel's seventh novel is a powerful coming-of-age story that meticulously highlights the patterns of self-inflicted cruelty sometimes taught to young women. It perfectly conveys the confusion of one contemporary Catholic girl, and provides a subtly moving take on the mystery of anorexia nervosa. Despite its grim subject, the writing, replete with sharp humor and evocative details of 1960s England, is never self-indulgent. Irony prevails stoutly over sentimentality, while the finale delivers a surprising twist of horror that will shake readers to the core."—Publishers Weekly
Reviews from Goodreads
This morning in the newspaper I saw a picture of Julia. She was standing on the threshold of her house in Highgate, where she receives her patients: a tall woman, wrapped in some kind of Indian shawl. There was a blur where her face should...