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Elizabeth Jane Howard


Book review by Anthony Campbell. The review is licensed under a Creative Commons Licence.
Gavin Young is a 31-year-old women's hairdresser who works in a London salon and lives with his parents. He is sensitive and cultured, interested in literature, classical music, and art. Events are seen entirely through his eyes and we are privy to his thoughts, fantasies, and numerous anxieties, especially about women; outside the safe confines of the salon he finds them fascinating but also terrifying, and he has never had sex with anyone, male or female. This is a bildungsroman—a coming-of-age novel; the events it describes take place in a single week, in which Gavin's life takes a new direction.

As the book opens we find him at work; we get quick character sketches of his clients, who are almost all middle-aged or elderly and mostly unhappy—one of them comes to have her hair done every day because she has nothing else to do. We stay mostly in the salon for the first two chapters; I found this mildly amusing but a bit slow. The book really takes off in Chapter 3, where Gavin goes, reluctantly, to a party with two gay friends. This is the first of a number of wildly comic set pieces that occur throughout the book. The party is held in a flat belonging to Joan, a rich and eccentric-looking woman who is destined to have an important part in Gavin's emotional awakening. He also meet Minerva Munday, a neurotic young woman who announces that she is Lady Minerva, which seems unlikely although not impossible.

Minerva triggers several of the later comic encounters that ensue, starting when she attaches herself to Gavin and follows him home, insisting that he invite her in to spend the night; he gives in and finds her a sofa to sleep on. He is uncertain how his mother will take her appearance next morning, but all is well because Mrs Lamb (herself a fine comic creation) is over-joyed to have a member of the aristocracy staying in her house. Minerva duly plays her part by concocting a fantastic description of life on her father's imaginary grandiose country estate. Minerva continues to reappear at intervals in the story, but eventually a darker note enters when she suffers a major psychotic breakdown and Gavin is unable to cope with her.

This novel was written while Howard's marriage to Kingsley Amis was breaking down and she was very unhappy, but there is no trace of that in this charming and enjoyable book.


%T Getting It Right
%A Howard, Elizabeth Jane
%I Hamish Hamilton
%C London
%D 1982
%G ISBN 0-241-1895-5
%P 264pp
%K fiction

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