How Hard Can It Be? by Allison Pearson
Allison Pearson’s first novel, I Don’t Know How She Does It, published in 2002, was an instant bestseller and one of the defining women’s novels of the time about the pressure to have it all. Her protagonist, Kate Reddy, was a successful fund manager in the City, a woman working in a man’s world. At home she had two needy young kids, Emily and Ben, long-suffering hubby Richard, not to mention the in-laws and her own family, plus the nanny, and Jack, a rich American client with whom she’d been having an email affair. I Don’t Know How She Does It was brilliantly funny with some hilarious scenes. I can’t forget the time that Kate bought shop-bought mince pies and roughed them up a little to look home-made to offer at a coffee morning not having time to bake like all the yummy mummies. Pearson’s second novel I Think I Love You was set in the 1970s and was about David Cassidy. Cassidy was my teenybopper crush and I loved this book too (see my review here).
However, in her third book, Pearson decided to return to Kate. Years have passed, Kate is approaching the big 5-0, the kids are in their mid-teens, her husband has lost his job and is retraining as a counsellor. Kate had wanted a third child, but Richard said no, so she got a dog…
Whatever the opposite of a punchbag is, that’s Lenny’s role in our family. He soaks up all the children’s cares. To a teenager, whose daily lot is to discover how unlovable and misshapen they are, the dog’s gift is complete and uncomplicated adoration.
They live in a doer-upper now, the only way they could afford a decent sized house when they moved back closer to London; Piotr, the Polish builder is a daily fixture. With no money coming in, Kate is faced with re-entering the job market – but is there still a place for a 49-year-old peri-menopausal woman in the financial world? Kate is a member of a ‘women returners’ group, and realises that the only way she’ll persuade someone to give her a halfway decent job is to lie about her age, and not to mention the unmentionable M-word.
Do you remember Donald Rumsfeld, when he was US Secretary of Defense, being mocked for talking about ‘Known unknowns’ in Iraq? My, how we laughed at the old boy’s evasiveness. Well, finally, I have some idea what Rumsfeld meant. Perimenopause is a daily struggle with Unknown Knowns.
In her mind, Kate consults Roy – a slipper-clad librarian whom she sends off into her memories to retrieve information her perimenopausal brain has misfiled. Roy aside, in her depiction of a woman on the brink of that big hormonal life-change, this is where Pearson really nailed it. Kate has all the symptoms – I know – I’m going through it myself. She is entering the menopause just as her kids’ hormones are raging too, and her own mother and in-laws are reaching new levels of frailty, in mother-in-law Barbara’s case, dementia which Richard can’t deal with. Additionally, Richard is going though his own mid-life crisis which having to undergo therapy himself as part of his training is making their marriage a real challenge. When Jack comes back into the picture, Kate is torn yet another way.
Forced back to being the family bread-winner, Kate has to juggle all these time and emotional pressures once again. Getting a job as maternity cover in her old company, with a young boss who’d love to see her fail, she will do her best to prove that age and experience should be treated as a winning asset. Work is the easy bit – sorting out her family is harder:
Emily still remembers the single ballet recital I missed in the summer of 2004 when she played the part of a dancing vegetable. It is inscribed in indelible ink in the Ledger of Maternal Neglect and will, no doubt, be raised on the Day of Judgement.
Those mince pies hadn’t been forgotten either! This novel is such am enjoyable read, lightweight but funny and witty, moving and honest too. It is full of scenarios we can all identify with, yet it is also satisfyingly escapist in its resolution. Pearson manages to achieve a great balance between the comedy and the pathos. Kate Reddy may be a middle-class mum with a career that few will share, but in having to deal with the trials of being the menopausal filling in life’s sandwich, she is an everywoman for us all. (9/10)
Source: Review copy – thank you.
Allison Pearson, How Hard Can It Be? (Borough Press, 2017), hardback, 480 pages.