In Carolyn Clarke’s novel, AND THEN THERE’S MARGARET, the author takes a standard narrative conflict involving man versus man and domesticates and revivifies it in Allison Montgomery relationship to her mother-in-law. Readers are perfectly introduced to narrator, Allie, who is in a state of aggravated discomfort as she signs up for a fitness membership. Clarke’s well-drawn Allie–who in middle age has a flagging sex drive, low self-esteem, a job she’s bored with, a distant 21-year-old daughter and a hard-working husband who she fears might stray–is already living the spiraling uncertainty of a middle-aged, middle-class, American female life. She loves her family, tries her best, gets frustrated, and sometimes makes bad decisions. She is our heroine and easy to relate to. When Allie’s beloved father-in-law George dies, Allie’s husband Hank dutifully brings his widowed mother, Margaret, to their home for an open-ended stay. Bam! Into Allie’s awkward midlife passage, Clarke throws a fabulous grenade. How will Allie, who’s treading water as it, handle life with a woman who seems almost obliviously intent on drowning her?
While Allie is flawed and familiar, it is Margaret’s pricelessly imperious, dismissive, fragile character that injects magic into this book. In page after page, Margaret manages with effortless hauteur to define Allie as slovenly, alcoholic, careless and somehow responsible for every possible bad thing anyone in the family encounters. Such is Margaret’s grand arrogance that she is blind to her own manifest mistakes and poor judgment. An additional gift of this novel rests in what is not there. It would have been easy for Margaret’s attributes to slip into absurdity. It would have been easy for Clarke to design Allie as a flawless innocent put-upon by her cruel mother-in-law. To Clarke’s credit she steers clear of these caricatures. In doing so, she creates a more delicate story about navigating middle-age. There is less high drama, but more relevant bite making AND THEN THERE’S MARGARET is a warm, well-turned, funny debut novel about family and aging that lightly reminds readers that we are all a little buffoonish, at every age.
Carolyn Clarke’s skillful and subtle storytelling in AND THEN THERE’S MARGARET, a playful coming-of (middle)-age novel, navigates a path that is funny without being absurd while creating a relatable narrator who encounters a magnificent little-old-lady menace.
~Ellen Graham for IndieReader