Review published on April 2, 2012. Reviewed by Kirsty Hewitt
Sue Townsend is most well-known for writing the series of Adrian Mole diaries, and is widely regarded as Britain’s ‘favourite comic writer’. Her 2012 release, The Woman Who Went to Bed for a Year, has met with astounding amounts of praise from critics and readers alike.
The novel opens with the character of Eva Beaver, wife to Brian and mother to twins Brianne and Brian Junior, who enjoys nothing more than having the house to herself. Her twins have just left for University, and this major upheaval in all of their lives is when Eva decides to get into bed fully dressed, and to stay there for a year.
The second chapter then follows astrophysics students Brianne and Brian Junior. They are incredibly brainy but both have a multitude of flaws. They seem unable to connect with the world around them and would much rather stay in each other’s company than be faced with anyone they don’t know. Brian Junior particularly is ‘clean, neat and unnaturally tidy’ and ‘panics if he has to talk to another human’.
The novel takes place in both Leeds and Leicestershire. Brian is a Doctor of Astronomy in a nearby University, and places more focus upon his career than his relationship with his wife. As a result, their marriage is soon fraught with a barrage of problems, including their incomprehension and embarrassment of one another. Eva’s life takes a turn for the worse when she is told by someone she has never met that her husband has been conducting an affair for the last eight years with a colleague named Titania. The dreams of the married couple shatter as the novel progresses.
The bed soon becomes Eva’s place of safety from the frenzied, mundane life which she wishes to escape from. She cocoons herself away from the rest of the prying world. She is uncertain about her new-found freedom and confesses to her husband that she has no idea how to live in the world. Eva is soon relying on Brian for everything and refuses to get out of bed even to make a drink for herself. It is as though she is bedridden and cannot move, when, in reality, she has merely decided to leave her old life behind. She is a likeable character in many respects but she does come across as incredibly selfish in places. Townsend builds up this sad state of affairs very well.
Townsend has included a wealth of humorous character quirks throughout. Brian is a ‘devotee of property programmes’ who enjoys listening to Woman’s Hour, daughter Brianne dislikes each and every part of her body, and Eva who always dresses in black occasionally allows herself to wear a grey garment as a treat.
Although the story focuses upon Eva, many other characters feature in the novel. These include Eva’s comical mother Ruby Brown-Bird, Brian’s ‘mummy’ Yvonne, the twins’ clingy housemate Poppy, jack-of-all-trades Alexander and next-door-neighbour Julie, who longs to switch places with Eva in her safe haven. Each foible of the characters is built upon until it becomes amusing. Some of the examples which best illustrate this are Brian’s belief that he is a ‘true space explorer’ who spent his childhood learning Swedish phrases to help him accept a Nobel Prize should one ever be awarded to him, and Brian Junior, who recites prime numbers in order to calm himself down.
All of these characters put Eva’s sudden decision down to different reasons. The twins believe she is going through the menopause, her husband and next-door neighbour think that she is having a breakdown, and her mother Ruby is under the impression that she is merely highly strung and suffering from what she terms as ‘Empty Nest Syndrome’.
The third person perspective allows the reader to be absorbed into the familiar world which Townsend has created and to sympathise with many of the characters as the storyline progresses. We know the setting and we all know characters like some of those featured in the novel, but the events used throughout are often surprising and amusing. The novel is a satirical portrayal upon middle-class family life in modern suburban Britain, which displays how one random and unexpected act can turn the world upside down.
The Woman Who Went to Bed for a Year is a well-written novel. It is very amusing in places but one does not get the sense that it is ‘laugh-out-loud’ funny. Still, it is a well-paced novel which holds the attention of the reader throughout.