The snappiest thing about Sue Townsend’s new book is its title, The Woman Who Went to Bed for a Year, which suggests much mirth: a quirky protagonist, surreal plot devices, noir humour.
It's the middle-class, suburban equivalent of Atlas shrugging: ie, there are many who cherish the fantasy of being able to take to bed for a seriously long time, and consign to the underworld, the responsibilities they have shouldered day after unappreciated day.
After the attention-grabbing title, however, the book finds it hard to balance its mixture of the literary and the real, satire and suburbia. It begins with a funny, farcical approach to the problems of a contemporary suburban housewife but doesn't know how to accommodate the intrusion of real-life bleakness.
When Eva Beaver, a librarian from Leicester, sends off her inordinately clever, but emotionally closed, twin children Brian Junior and Brianne to college, she decides “the twins were Leeds University’s problem now”. She does notice the tomato soup left simmering on the hob and the floor by her errant family. Decisively, she throws the broth over a previous soup stain she had agonised over, on the chair she had painstakingly embroidered for two years. Then Eva climbs the stairs to her bed determined not to get out of it, probably for a year. Eva is done with the whole domestic thing.
There are flashes of amusingly descriptive writing: “I haven’t used my brain for so long the poor thing is huddled in a corner waiting to be fed,” says Eva. Problem is: Eva expects her body to be fed as well during her bed-in, one of the pragmatic issues that need working out. Another is what she will do with bodily wastes. While Eva toys with the idea of using freezer bags as a chamber pot, she finds no volunteers for clearing the bags each day – and compromises by laying a bed-sheet trail to her en suite bathroom. She gets scant sympathy or understanding from her scientist husband or gifted children, whose EQs are in inverse correlation to their IQs. Brian is dismayed: who will cook his food, iron his clothes, keep his home clean? Eva's primary caregivers are initially her mother Ruby and mother-in-law Yvonne, neither of whom can comprehend Eva's strange behaviour.
Eva takes her self-imposed sojourn in bed just as seriously as John Lennon and Yoko Ono, who famously held weeklong Bed-Ins as a non-violent way of protesting against war. You assume Eva is protesting about being taken for granted; a legitimate feeling experienced by many women who feel their identities and desires have been subsumed within the persona of wife/mother/caregiver. But the underlying principle behind Eva's bed-in isn’t completely clear: is it the proverbial midlife crisis taken to extreme, or a sane reallocation of priorities, or a woman gone completely barmy? Despite the promise at the start, the author can’t seem to pin down what route to take with Eva.
The novel expands to include an odd menagerie of people, most of whom are extremely annoying. For starters, there’s a collection of waifs and strays — including a suicidal man and a mother with a missing child — who drop in on Eva for solace. Pretty soon Eva becomes “a Saint in Suburbia”, TV channels want to feature her, and a growing crowd of fans keep vigil in the street outside her house.
Another character is Titania Noble-Forester, a colleague of Brian who turns out be involved in an eight-year-long affair with him. The most repellent is Poppy, a fellow student at the twins’ university who is a pathological liar, parasite and user of people. Grace notes are provided by dreadlocked painter/odd-job man Alexander, who is rather smitten by Eva.
Sue Townsend is considered one of Britain’s great comic authors, and her Adrian Mole series has become a classic. While there are passages of really funny observations and some perceptive plot structures in this book, largely, the situations feel contrived rather than comic. The Woman Who Went to Bed for a Year feels like the literary equivalent of a “high concept” film — such as “Snakes on A Plane” — where the title is the whole story.
The Woman Who Went to Bed for a Year; Sue Townsend, Michael Joseph (an imprint of Penguin Books), Rs.499