I really wanted to like this book. I love India’s columns in The Times, and find her tweets often hilarious – especially when she and Caitlin Moran are watching Downton Abbey at the same time. I think she usually has a lot of interesting things to say and a sarcastic, yet honest, way of writing. It doesn’t feel, in her columns, as though she’s going for a cheap laugh or a moment’s entertainment at the expense of the point she’s trying to make. But I didn’t feel the same warmth from her novel.
Set over three conscutive Christmas Days, 2009-11, Comfort and Joy follows Clara and her complicated extended family as they negotiate what I suppose is a very modern way of trying to make Christmas traditional. The family changes over the three years, with Clara trying to manage her mother, half-sisters, ex-husbands, children and friends around the dinner table while trying to keep her sanity – so far, so I Don’t Know How She Does It.
There are a few warm, funny moments – for example, the youngest daughter complaining sadly that her body isn’t private, in response to her cousin’s clear training when preparing for bathtime, because her brothers always tease her, is a moment anyone with a large family will recognise I think. But there were few so that when they came along it was noticeable.
I think the sticking point for me was that I didn’t like the attitude of Clara, who’s narrating the story, to her mother-in-law Pat – a stereotypical Irish working class mother who for some reason brought out the worst kind of ‘ooh isn’t she sweet and funny’ snobbery in Clara. Pat may have the stereotyped views of someone of her nationality and generation, but Clara – and her whole family – were so patronising towards her that I ended up completely switching off and actually seeing Clara not as the generous put-upon mother who needs to eventually realise that she can’t make Christmas perfect with the gifts and dinner, so she needs to focus on the family and time that matters, but as quite a cold woman who doesn’t really try to understand other people. Especially when towards the end of the novel, Pat gives what is for her quite an expressive speech, thanking Clara effectively for keeping her involved in this family after separating from Pat’s son, and she came across at that moment as very genuine compared to Clara’s constant attempts to be a very cool, classy woman who instead is shallow and self-centred. There were other issues too; the very comfortable relationship she has with her ex-husbands, the fact that nobody seems to move on with their life but instead just move slightly to one side and make way for someone else alongside themselves, and the self-congratulatory nature of the women involved who had moved from one relationship to the next and thought their children were absolutely fine with it all. I’m sure some children of divorced parents are ok about it, but there seemed to be an undercurrent with these that was never fully explored.
It was a little disappointing, really, that someone whose columns suggest she has such an interesting view on a wide range of issues, and who can get very passionate in her non-fiction, chose to write about someone who remains quite cold, and disconnected from everyone around them – with the sadly inevitable result that we end up disconnected from her.