Sunday, 1 July 2007

Diary of an Ordinary Woman?

Before starting this book I was unsure. It certainly wasn’t on my list of ‘must reads’. I’m a fan of pre 1930s literature or yarns of daring adventure. I suspected ‘Diary of an Ordinary Woman’ to be some ghastly kitchen sink drama. I was wrong.

Certainly the first few diary entries don’t quite ring true. Millicent seems a very fictional thirteen year old to me and I was looking for faults to dislike. However I quickly appreciated the subtle way the author hangs back from telling everything, revealing some incidents, glossing over others, always leaving the reader wanting more.

It would be easy to mistake this book for a real diary, and not recognise it as an unusual work of fiction. In my own family are stories of young men joining up to fight in wars, with equally tragic results, I think George’s story is very real. The account of life in the First World War hooked me and from then on I couldn’t put the book down.

I feel for this woman. How she wants more from life but is challenged at every turn, though really she has far more opportunities than many of her time, male or female. She annoys me. I am irritated by her lack of staying power and even slightly jealous of her job on the bohemian, artsy magazine. I scoffed when she fails to realise that, when a young man says he admires her ‘critical faculties’, he really wants to get his hands on something else. I could understand her rage and frustration, trapped in that dreadful Brighton school with a head teacher she scorns and detests and all the time wanting something better. I wanted to find out more about her life. I began to really care about what happened next.

My heart goes out to her, with a life so full of duty and even love, but so devoid of true friendship. The lack of anyone close to confide in goes well with the conceit of a confessional diary.

Was she an extraordinary woman or just an ordinary woman living through extraordinary times? I haven’t made up my mind yet, I’m still thinking about it, and to my mind that’s the mark of an extraordinary book.


Suffolkmum said...

I found this book very thought provoking too. I find that a common trait in Margaret Forsters's books is a lead female chaacter that I can't warm to. I felt for her, sympathised with her, could occasionally relate to her, but didn't like her terribly. She became a sort of 'everywoman' for me, living through some extraordinary times. I really liked the contrast between her early life and her adopted daughters's (it's a couple of years since I read this, so can't remember her name!)- it really hit home to me just how radical the post-war period was. One reaction I had surprised me - even though it was clearly advertised as a 'novel' and as fiction, I still felt vaguely let down at the end, knowing it wasn't a real diary. That contradition proves to me that Forster carried it off; her life was very believable and absorbing. Would write more, but must get back to my packing for my hoiday tomorrow!

mountainear said...

Don't know whether I should be commenting yet or not - I'm three quarters of the way through the novel - but I do have some opinions and it's going to take a miracle for them to be any different on the last page. (But who knows?...)

I started out wanting to believe that this really was a diary as edited by the author - not a work of fiction - then realised that it was just that, a well researched piece of fiction. I don't feel particularly cheated by that realisation as I know other readers have been. But I do feel that Id rather be putting the effort into reading a real diary/real history - I read Simon Garfield's 'Our Hidden Lives' which took Mass Observation diaries and interwove the stories told by 5 diarists and their 'ordinary' lives had a profound effect on me. (I also notice that on the cover of my copy the publisher quotes Margaret Forster: "I love these diaries. They are real stories...better than any novel.')

However do not I think we can be disappointed by Forster's characterisation of Millicent- she is as ordinary as the title suggests and happens to live through extraordinary times. I wonder if that could be said of many people who lived through the turbulent events of the 20th century? To me she comes across as somewhat dreary and unadventurous, a little self-centred and self consciously dutiful too. I do not feel sympathetic towards her just vaguely exasperated that she has so many opportunites yet fails to grasp them. The magazine, America, the vibrant Daphne etc etc. I do keep wondering why I keep turning the pages to find out what happens next to this dull woman.

However, I have some pages to go - maybe her latter years will be more rewarding and fulfilling.

Posie Rosie said...

Oh now I feel really behind, I was full of good intentions as I loved the idea of the book club forum, but haven't got the book yet. I may wait for the next title after reading your reviews....hope that isn't cheating!

lampworkbeader said...

Hi Rosie
sorry you haven't had time to read the book but, having read about your busy life I can well understand why. I think we need to leave 6 weeks between choosing the book and commenting. That way everyone is in with a chance to contribute. Start thinking about books to recommend for next time. Hopefully everyone will vote for a book you've already read.
Best wishes

Preseli Mags said...

Yikes! I've only just got my copy of the book, so I have got some catching up to do. I'll have to come back when I have read more! Here's me, as my husband would say, a day late and a dollar short as ususal!

Pondside said...

Good morning - I did read the book - all the way through!
As I began it I was sure I was going to love it and be lost in it and wish it to never end. As I read, I went from exasperation to boredom to the odd nodd of 'I get it'.
I felt a bit silly when I realized it was fiction. Of course, logically I knew it was, but I love biography and diaries and was hopeful. I know that there was an incredible amount of research required for such a work, and that showed.
I agree that she was an ordinary woman living in extraordinary times. I didn't like the child Millicent - bossy and selfish - but felt that she was portrayed very realistically. I remember, as a child of 11 being horrified that my mother was expecting a fourth child! I knew that I would be expected to take on yet more responsibility and it seemed so unfair!
I was frustrated by Millicent the adult. She made choices that could have led to fullfillment, even excitement, but she always held back in a way that I found hard to believe. Even with Robert, she held back. It didn't ring true to me, that a woman of independent means and some education would be so.....dull.
I really liked the last years, when Connie was at Greenham Common. I think that my moment of greatest affection/insight regarding Millicent occurred when she was mailing the parcel and was asked by the lady at the counter why anyone would do what Connie was doing - Millicent was about to shrug and more-or-less agree with the prevailing attitude, but changed her mind and 'gave a little lecture'. It was a small moment, but showed her 'stepping out' in a way that she'd always avoided.
So, would I read more from this author? Perhaps. I wasn't enthralled, but it was an enjoyable read.
I look forward to the next one.

snailbeachshepherdess said...

I could hardly wait to start and tore the cellophane off, flicked through the pages and unfortunately found the author's note at the back....that took the sheen off a bit because I had thought it was a real diary. anyway on I went and found the little girl selfish and a bit precocious but then i told myself off because it was supposed to be a diary and they are selfish instruments really...well they would have been to an 11 year old! I kept wanting something to 'go right' for Millicent to make her jump about with happiness to excite her but I don't think even Robert got her to dizzy heights! Then I told myself off again ...this is the diary of an ORDINARY woman...s**t happens to ordinary women! Sometimes they will go on and on and never find their cloud with a silver lining. I think she nearly found fulfilment with Connie but even that was too ethereal to appreciate. Undoubtedly the historical context is accurate and it was as someone has already said 'an ordinary woman in extraordinary times' and even though I wanted something so much more for Millicent I sort of knew she just wasn't going to get there.....a bit sad really. I'm sad I have finished it is sort of still up in the air and I keep wondering about those real diaries..I bet you that they describe a more exciting life than Millicent's ..but then we'll never know will we? And next time I shall not read the author's note at the back first....that'll larn me!

Pondside said...

I've looked and re-looked, but my library copy didn't have an 'author's note' anywhere.

patsy said...

This is not generally the sort of book I would pick up in a bookstore. Perhaps selfishly, the emotional ups and downs, trials and tribulations of ordinary people do not interest me unless the characters are truly engaging. I read little fiction therefore, unless it is a murder mystery, travelogue or the story hangs off a historical background for example. I don’t like my emotions to be manipulated just for the sake of it.

Therefore it was with some resignation that I tackled the book. Although I knew it was a fictional account of her diary, I chose not to remember this while reading about our heroine Millicent.

Millicent as a character was unremarkable but living through extraordinary times. I think she proves the point that it’s not what you have but the choices you make, that shape your life. After a fairly feisty start to her life, when she was quite daring e.g. teaching in Rome, having an affair, she seems to have become stultified in her choices, though I admit she had good reason after she became guardian of the twins. Time after time she had the chance to make her life more interesting but hesitated and lost the moment. Hardly made the rest of the book exciting though. Although I found Connie’s sentiments were admirable ( I pass Greenham Common 3 times a week), like many people with a fervent belief, she seemed rather one dimensional and basically rather tedious. As for Toby, what was his point in the story? Nothing developed there.

However I was compelled to read on and complete the book (I’m a goody two shoes when it comes to homework). When the final twist in the tale was revealed i.e. that the author never read the original diaries, I felt a little cheated. As I had read the book, certain things had annoyed or irritated me in the narrative but I let them pass as they would have occurred in a real diary. For example, some boring bits when very little happened, or conversely, when tragedy struck, the writer was overwhelmed and unable to commit thoughts to paper. I could understand this would happen to any diarist. But later, on discovering that this was in fact a fictional account of a diary, I wondered why the author had allowed the pace of the story to slow. Or was she in fact calling the reader’s bluff, and boring the reader deliberately, as any one would be occasionally, when reading a true diary? !

Have I been had by a very clever author or was this truly rather a mundane story? I’m still pondering the conundrum…and is that not the mark of a great book, that I‘m still thinking about it, days after I closed the last page?

annakarenin said...

I read the book about a year ago for a book club and did not feel like re-reading.

I did not feel she was an ordinary women maybe because the vast majority of women I know who lived through that era did not have anything like the opportunities that she had. Yes they lived through a great deal on a worldwide scale but their day to day life was pretty insulated. I have one Aunt who lived a little but she was by no means ordinary. I think suffolkmum's comment that she was an 'everywoman' is probably spot on and it stopped me relating to her and becoming absorbed in the book.

I did find her frustrating and kept thinking, oh here we go again she is going to blow this one, but then that is very typical of many fictional heroines and I suppose it is why I was not surprised by the ending.

The childhood gripped me the most but the gaps caused annoyance at the time I was reading them although I understood it would have been impractical to include everything if you were transcribing a persons diary, I often felt that certain things could or should have been explained. I suppose though it fitted in with the fictional side of things to tantalize the reader and keep them going to the end.

It was an interesting read and worth it but like I said at the beginning not something I would chose to re-read or would send me rushing to read anymore novels written by the author. Carol Shield's Stone Diaries is of a similar type and I didn't particularly enjoy that either though I did enjoy a previous CS book that I had read.

mountainear said...

Me again. I've reached the end and... - nothing. I felt at the end it was a little like reading the obituary of a nobody in a provincial newspaper - in that respect Forster perhaps achieved her aim, portraying so accuratly this 'ordinary woman'. On reflection I think what Millicent lacks is the warmth of flesh and blood - and surely even that ego-reflecting organ, the diary, could give a hint of her humanity.

Incidently I picked this book up and read it immediately after reading Alexander Masters's 'Stuart, a Life Backwards'- a biography of a very troubled man indeed. Stuart's turbulent life made Millicents ordered progress appear quite dull. Aren't comparisons odious?.


If you let me know what your emial account is you use for blogger ( mine is ) I will set up a new bookclub blog for you and send you all the log in details etc then you can change the password or keep the one I put in . The way you can administer it etc ...

bradan said...

Although this was a fictional account of a 'Diary' I felt it to be believable and was soon engrossed although I had little sympathy for Millicent.
From the beginning she seemed to be rather cold, self-centred and somewhat boring. I just longed for her to show some real emotions as her friend Daphne did, some warmth love, enjoyment of life. Instead, Millicent seemed to be a person who lived her life as a sort of 'duty'.
She had so many opportunities, but never seemed to make anything of them despite her educational background and finanacial stability.It seemed to me as though she never quite 'made it' somehow. I felt Millicent to be a person to whom things 'happened' rather than one in control of her life and in this way she was just an 'ordinary woman'
Margaret Forster had obviously researched well and I did get a real flavour of the extraordinary times through which Millicent lived, but in the end I couldn't really see the value in this sort of work. As I finished it, I really just felt relieved, not the way I like to end a book!