‘And I’m just left in the middle,’ says Mia quite late in the book, ‘looking like a complete disaster whatever I do.’ By this point, readers have seen plenty of episodes, often clouded by drink, to confirm Mia’s defeated view of herself. There’s little room for manoeuvre between perfect older sister Grace, the first student from their comp. to get a place at Cambridge and younger sister Audrey, already tipped at 13 as a future Olympian in the swimming pool. Her Mum and Dad might regularly assure all their daughters of their love, but Mia is certain she’s a disappointment to them – and, for that matter, to her teachers who were expecting her to be Grace Mark II. She’s not especially committed to anything, unless you count having a good time with best mate Stella, gay and witty Mikey and gentle Kimmy.
Mum and Dad are wrapped up with each other at the moment, anyway. After 20 years or more, they’ve decided it’s time they got married. All the talk is of Dad giving Mum ‘the wedding of her dreams’, of ‘our special day’, of ghastly lilac-chiffon bridesmaids’ dresses, which do nothing for Mia – with her huge Afro and striking good looks she’s clearly her Jamaican Dad’s daughter. With all this going on in, it’s not easy having to edge round Mum and Dad snogging by the fridge (it’s a small house) or even rolling about amorously together on the carpet.
Grace is the immediate source of Mia’s problems. Always admired, always praised – until she returns from a gap year archeological dig in Greece with new boyfriend, super-posh Sam, also heading for Cambridge where he plans to read medicine. Grace has come home early because she’s pregnant. For a moment, Mia glimpses freedom – at last, Grace has messed up. But to her astonishment, by the next day, Mum and Grace are poring over push-chair catalogues and Sam’s being enthusiastically welcomed into the family. Now it’s either The Baby or The Wedding shaping family life – even the choice of that lilac-chiffon monstrosity was decided by what would suit Grace’s bump. It is here that Lisa Williamson’s deft handling of a small cast of characters – very evident in her debut novel, award-winning The Art of Being Normal – is so impressive. For this novel to reflect the nuanced tensions within a family and a network of friends, we need to experience others through narrator Mia’s eyes and yet also to understand those characters’ perspectives on her. How trustworthy is Mia’s account of sisters, parents, teachers, friends? Self-aware or self-deceiving? She swings from exhilaration to drunken despair, trading on her easy sexuality, thinking she’s got things under control though we can see she’s being exploited by some free-range night-clubbing blokes twice her age or even a local lad she knows her close friend Kimmie has long fancied from afar. She leaves a trail of emotional wreckage, even trampling through her parents’ sentimental wedding reception. Above all, she fails to see beneath the apparent serenity of her sisters’ lives.
Mia is at the end of her first year of A-levels, and not doing well; if she is to make anything of her own future, something needs to happen soon. It does, from an unexpected quarter. Her attention has been absorbed by I-Am-To-Be-A-Mother Grace; meanwhile, Audrey’s been ploughing up and down the lonely training pool and wondering just who she is – take away the swimming, who’s left? The ending brings the sisters intimately together, maybe in a situation which comes close to needless melodrama. In these closing chapters, Mia looks beyond herself to understand the uncertainties of her siblings and friends. I have to say, though, I did wish those parents would grow up a bit.