The Good Guy by Susan Beale
I absolutely adore tales set in 1960s American suburbia. There’s something about the more spacious US setting that grabs me in a way that those set in the cramped English equivalent don’t. They are too close to home for I am a product of the 1960s London suburbs; been there, done that!
The Good Guy is one such American tale – a love-triangle set near Boston. It’s 1964 and Ted McDougall is married to Abigail, they have a lovely ten month old daughter called Mindy and live in a new house on the up and coming Elm Grove estate. Ted’s star is high at Goodyear where he’s a tyre salesman and as the novel starts he’s going out to dinner with a client to set up the biggest deal of his career so far.
With a commission on an account like that he could pay the mortgage off early, fill baby Mindy’s college fund, take Abigail on vacation to Europe. All of it could be his; would be his. At twenty-three.
Ted didn’t go to university, and his wife’s family don’t let him forget it – they’re intellectuals, her father a lawyer of good standing. But Ted is determined to give Abigail and Mindy the life they deserve. Abigail meanwhile is struggling with the restrictions of motherhood, maybe a little depressed – she’d rather continue her studies in American History than be a housewife.
When Ted’s client wants to find some girls after dinner, Ted has to go along with him. That’s when they meet some young air stewardesses, out with their secretary friend Penny. Ted is attracted to Penny and Penny to Ted and they dance and flirt a little, nothing more. They give the girls a lift home.
Penny leaves a glove in his car, and after a period of indecision, Ted tracks her down and takes it back to her. Ere long, he is starting a life of adultery with her. He doesn’t tell her the truth about Abigail, but does own up to having a daughter, at first implying that Abigail died from ‘complications in childbirth.’ He goes on to create a new personal history for Penny, who looks up to him so …
You know where it’s going. Ted desperately tries to please both women as it gets more and more complicated. He believes he is a ‘good guy’ at heart – we know he’s a bounder – but he doesn’t discover that he can’t have it all until it’s too late. Beale doesn’t make us hate him though, we do empathise with his situation, his need to be loved and to prove himself to someone other than his wife and her family. How we feel for poor Penny though.
In the same way that Mad Men captured the 1960s so perfectly, not just Madison Avenue, but Don’s home life with wife and kids in the suburbs, The Good Guy does the same on the page. It shows us the requirements of the respectability that housewives had (to be perceived at least) to obey. The aspirations of the suburban lifestyle are almost painfully to the fore in Elm Grove. Feeling trapped, Abigail rebels against all of this in her own way, taking up her academic career again. She may be the hardest character to love, but is no less deserving of our sympathy.
The author lets the three main characters take turns to tell the story and we build up a complex picture of each of them. Inspired by the author’s own story, this novel was so engrossing, and told in an intelligent way. Very enjoyable indeed. (9/10)
Also read Victoria’s brilliant Shiny review and interview.
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Source: Publisher via Amazon Vine – Thank you.
Susan Beale, The Good Guy (John Murray, June 2016) Hardback, 320 pages.
11 thoughts on “When the American Dream is found out…”
I enjoyed this one very much too. Thinking of similar time period/setting, have you read The Longest Night by Andria Williams? I loved that one. Also going to be reading The Other Side of the World by Stephanie Bishop soon — though it’s 1960s English suburbia rather than American.
I’ll have to look those up!
I’m so glad you enjoyed this. As you know, I loved it!
It was your recommendation that made me pick it. It captured the era brilliantly and I loved the locations (soft spot for Cape Cod – two lovely holidays there).
American life in that era certainly was very different from the UK (no mod cons, no central heating and dull food). Not such a great era to be a woman, though, as you point out!
The early 1960s are such an interesting period though. All that ferment underneath just waiting to burst out.
Wonderful review, I love book of this ilk as well! Anything Richard Yates or Cheever esque.
I’ll definitely have to pick this up, it sounds very engrossing.
I’m ashamed to say – I haven’t yet made time for Cheever or Yates – although I can talk them up! I must read them – it’s not as though I don’t have them on my TBR shelves.
Well I do like Richard Yates, but overall I get a bit impatient with stories of American suburbia. I think it’s a function of too much time passing with stories of suburbia being the mind-numbing soul-killer. And I admit at this point, I’m reluctant to try books where that’s a major element. But you may have talked me into it!
For me, it’s all the simmering undercurrents just waiting to explode out that always hook me with this kind of novel. This one was very well done though, and the author’s own story is fascinating (see Victoria’s Q&A with the the author at Shiny).