Book ReviewsBritish authors

Small Pleasures by Clare Chambers — escape a life of duty

Cover of Small Pleasures by Clare Chambers, a novel that evokes the atmosphere of London in  1957

Small Pleasures, Clare Chambers’ first novel in nine years, was longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction and named as a book of the year by nine newspapers and magazines in the UK. I wonder what all those judges and literary editors saw in this book that I missed?

There are many elements to enjoy in this tale of journalist who gets the chance to escape a life of duty and disappointment when she encounters a woman who has an extraordinary claim about her past. it’s highly readable, perfectly captures the atmosphere of London in the 1950s and has a couple of strong characters.

And yet I didn’t ever feel completely immersed in the story.

The novel focuses on Jean Swinney, a feature writer for a local newspaper near her home in one of the London suburbs. Approaching 40, she feels her life slipping away in the mundanity of caring for her grouchy, clinging mother. Jean’s pleasures are indeed small: “the first cigarette of the day; a glass of sherry before Sunday lunch; a bar of chocolate parcelled out to last a week; a newly published library book, still pristine and untouched by other hands …”

Her job at the North Kent Echo offers an escape from the house but is equally undemanding. The role of features editor sounds glamorous but in reality it means churning out handy household tips and fun ways to mark such wonderful events as National Salad Week and write ups of the previous week’s weddings.

The humble lettuce, if properly dressed, can be the foundation of many nutritious family meals. Try serving with baked or fried forcemeat balls for. crisp new touch…..

Her humdrum life is transformed when a woman writes to the newspaper claiming to have experienced a virgin birth. When no one else in the editorial team shows the slightest interest in this story, it’s down to Jean to discover whether Gretchen Tilbury is a fraud or a biological miracle.

Small Pleasures follows Jean’s attempts to refute or substantiate Gretchen’s claim that, at the time of her daughter’s conception, she was suffering from severe rheumatoid arthritis and was confined to bed in a a convent-run nursing home. We follow her interviews with former staff members and patients at the convent and appointments with medical experts who arrange a series of tests to establish if there is a genetic match between Gretchen and her daughter Margaret.

But Jean’s objectivity becomes compromised by her growing attachment to the Tilbury family and especially to Gretchen’s husband Howard. Will these friendships offer her the opportunity for happiness at last?

Clare Chambers clearly has a great eye for detail. She captures the drabness of Jean’s life with her mother in wonderful detail, right down to the crocheted doilies that sit “like little puddles of string under every vase, lamp and ornament.” and the pair’s nightly rituals of gin rummy and darning before a bedtime hot milky drink.

The evocation of London life in 1957 is also handled skillfully. Shops close promptly at 5.30pm, hand-knitted jumpers are given as Christmas presents and women make their own dresses from Simplicity paper patterns. The most telling evocation of the era comes in the form of Jean’s titbits on household management that are interspersed throughout the novel.

They speak of a time when “make do and mend” was the norm and wives (no men involved in domestic chores !) were keen to get tips to prepare tasty but thrifty meals.

From one of Jean’s pieces for example, we learn:

Never throw away an old plastic makintosh. The hood cut off will make a useful toilet bag. The large back panel may be used to line a suitcase to ensure safety from damp should the case get wet when travelling.

And from another:

“GOOD USES FOR SOUR MILK. Linoleum or cloth washed with sour milk comes up brighter than with water. Sour milk also makes a good bleach for discoloured white fabrics. Wring out articles in water, place in a bowl and cover with sour milk. Leave for forty-eight hours. Wash thoroughly and the articles will be snow-white”

Despite all the positive aspects, Small Pleasures was ultimately an unsatisfactory read. The dramatic event at the end, which picks up on a real-life incident, felt too neat a conclusion for the story. The book was perfectly readable but it was the equivalent of vanilla ice-cream for me — enjoyable at the time but not memorable.


What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

21 thoughts on “Small Pleasures by Clare Chambers — escape a life of duty

  • Pingback: October 2022 Reading Wrap Up : BookerTalk

  • When I listen to the podcast Backlisted, I often hear them mention how they enjoy writing about the small, mundane events of daily life. They give examples similar to yours here. Maybe it is a new trend, lol. Nothing big happens but at the end you see maybe progression? Who knows. All the best.

    • A lot of people who read books set in or written in that era mention that they so often have a focus on domestic life. I suppose that makes sense for writers from the 50s since so many of them had no experience of life outside the home

  • I like your vanilla ice cream analogy, and can empathise with it. I don’t think I’ll be reading this one.

    • So many books are like that. I remember that I read a particular book but can’t recall a single thing about it…

  • As a child of the 50s, I’m sure this book would provoke many wry smiles of recognition for me, but following your review, I won’t go oit of my way to look for it.

    • Very honest review.. Too bad it wasn’t more compelling. The virgin birth story would have put me off but the rest should have intrigued me.

      • I didn’t find that virgin birth story very interesting and I guessed the “solution” to the mystery well before it was revealed

    • I bought lots of them myself – the results seldom looked like the pictures on the packet sadly

  • I had much the same problems with this than you did and was also very troubled by the way it treated Gretchen’s sexuality.

  • Those Simplicity patterns brought back memories from my childhood, sifting through my mother’s stack of clothes patterns thinking how glamorous all the ladies looked in their fine clothes.

    • My mum wasn’t much use with a sewing machine though she did try. I remember one ghastly outfit she made for myself and my sister when we went on our first holiday abroad. Matching trouser suits in brown crimpoline (yuk)

  • This sounds like one I might bring home from the library if I stumble on it there… nothing lost if it turns out to be as you say.

    • That’s the beauty of a library isn’t it. I often use it for authors/books I’m not sure about, knowing that if they don’t work out I won’thave the guilt of wasted money

      • Yes, with the bonus that whereas one might persist with a book that’s not very engaging because of the money that’s been spent on it, with a library book it can freely be cast aside.

        • Absolutely – the author still benefits (at least they do in the UK) from a small payment through the lending rights scheme

  • I’m sorry this book didn’t entirely connect with you. I agree the real-life event at the end didn’t seem to fit with the rest of the story, but I did find Jean a fascinating character and the story memorable. Like you, I appreciated the immersion into details of the time.

    • It was Jean’s mum I think I found more interesting.


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