Wake up Happy Every Day by Stephen May
Last year, when I hosted my second Beryl Bainbridge Reading Week, Stephen May wrote a lovely guest post for my blog about the time he met BB and ended up giving her a piggyback! (Do click HERE to read it.) It was immediately obvious that May is great at comic understatement and I vowed to read his novels – in fact I already had this one on my shelves. It took me nine months to remember and make a space for it though, but I wish I hadn’t waited that long – I adored Wake Up Happy Every Day and now really want to read his latest, Stronger Than Skin.
Nicky and Russell have been best friends for forty years. As the novel opens, it’s the eve of Russell’s fiftieth birthday. He has invited Nicky to join him for the celebrations as he always does. Nicky has flown over from England to join Russell at his swanky bachelor pad on Russian Hill in San Francisco. Russell is telling Nicky how he’s giving up all his business, he’s terminated all his relationships, ‘Except you and Sarah, Nicky-boy.’ He’s off to see the world, having freed up all his capital:
Turns out Russell is richer than the Queen, richer than Madonna. Vatican rich. Biblically rich. Richer.
What a waste. (p2)
Russell’s view is that he’s done better because he is better. I’ve done crap because I am crap. And, truthfully, I don’t mind this talk. Not really. I can’t be arsed to even pretend to mind. I’m used to it. It’s an old routine, easily bearable. It’s not like I even really listen any more. Sarah gets annoyed about it, but I don’t. And Sarah, my beautiful, loyal, kind-hearted life partner, is upstairs, lying next to Scarlett, my funny-faced newish daughter. Where is Russell’s loyal, kind-hearted life partner? Where is Russell’s funny-faced newish daughter? (p3)
Russell gets up to go to the loo, and when he doesn’t appear back, Nicky goes searching only to find him dead!
Nicky comes up with a cunning plan. What if he were to become Russell and take over his life – Russell made a big thing about clearing the decks of old contacts. Nicky, Sarah and their daughter could start again, but with no money worries. Surely that would bring happiness. Nicky has few relatives left in the UK, only his father really, who has dementia. It’s certainly bold, and amazingly, Sarah agrees to go along with it, she will bury Russell as Nicky and play the widow. Nicky starts being Russell, and it starts off well. We, the readers, know of course, that it’s not going to be that simple, don’t we?
Nicky’s story alternates with three other characters – all women, all of whom will impact upon Nicky’s new life as Russell.
- Lorna, is English. She’s come to America to find her own father.
- Polly, is a teenager who volunteers at the care home where she strikes up a friendship with Daniel, Nicky’s father.
- Catherine, an ex-soldier. A mysterious woman who is almost stalking Nicky.
The one problem that Nicky and Sarah have with their new life is going out. They need someone to look after Scarlett, and someone to drive them around. Enter Mary and Jesus.
We got Mary from an agency that says they are ‘Proud to give the second-best kind of love.’ (p53).
Jesus Rodriguez. A twenty-three year old Guatemalan business studies grad student earning some extra Yankee dollars driving for the masters of the universe. Jesus is a chauffeur; he wears a chauffeur’s cap but he somehow makes his uniform look like a creation from the fashion avant-garde – he has a catwalk strut. (p57)
Nicky and Sarah will come to rely on Mary and Jesus rather too quickly. Mary and Jesus get leverage from this, complicating matters further once Nicky’s new persona starts to unravel. And what of Lorna and Catherine? I couldn’t possibly say – but Catherine’s storyline is particularly interesting.
The strand set in England featuring Polly and Nicky’s dad reminded me of Nina Stibbe’s Paradise Lodge (reviewed here). There is plenty of comedy to be had through misunderstandings in a care home setting, but this is tempered with poignancy at the plight of the elderly Daniel.
May also gives us plenty to think about in terms of our relationship with money. We all know that ‘money can’t buy me love’, but there is a level at which you can get by comfortably – does that equate with happiness? The novel is not strictly written for laughs, yet May brings that understated comic wit to the fore throughout so that it is very funny, but done with a light touch – no need for the heavy satire of Martin Amis Money (reviewed here). With the inclusion of the mysterious Catherine and Nicky’s realisation that everyone wants a piece of him, May introduces a hint of thrillerish noir – necessary for its resolution. This is a winning combination, and the payoff at the end was inspired!
If you’ve not discovered Stephen May’s novels yet, Wake Up Happy Every Day is a great place to start. (9.5/10)
Source: Own copy
Stephen May, Wake up happy every day (Bloomsbury, 2014), paperback, 369 pages.