Friday, January 22, 2016

Book Review: Being Sarah Chilton

By Jami Deise

The term “unreliable narrator” is usually reserved for mysteries and thrillers that play mind games with their readers. Gone Girl is the latest, most famous example, although the trend actually began with Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, written in 1927. An unreliable narrator is a first person protagonist who doesn’t tell the reader everything needed to fully grasp what’s going on in the story. Key details – usually the ones that make the protagonist look bad —are left out, and others are given more importance than they deserve.

The most common unreliable narrator, however, doesn’t lurk in the pages of mysteries or thrillers. No, she (and it’s almost always a she) is often found on the general fiction shelves, with a pink cover and a title in a cursive font. She’s the women’s fiction protagonist who writes her story in the form of a diary.

Novels in diary form (and their close cousin, the novel-as-a-series-of-letters) have been around for centuries. While readers of women’s fiction might automatically think of Bridget Jones’s Diary, the most famous diary novel is arguably Dracula. Whatever the genre, the diary-as-novel is limited in that entries are only written when the diarist has something to write, the ability to write it down, and the energy to do so. Much more than the first person protagonist of a narrative book, characters and events are filtered not only through the diarist’s experience, but written down after the fact. The result can be a deeply one-sided story.

Diarist Sarah Chilton has that annoying but understandable habit that most diary keepers have – she only writes when she’s unhappy. Ruth Briddon’s Being Sarah Chilton begins in January 1998, the day Sarah meets Chris. Sarah is a British part-time secretary for an accountant, leading a mundane life when a new insurance broker moves into the office next door. Chris is tall, dark and handsome, and Sarah is swept completely off her feet. Rather than spending time writing in her diary, she’s too busy having sex with Chris. Soon enough, they are living together, then engaged, then married. It all happens relatively quickly, and Sarah’s penchant to skip writing when she’s happy means that the reader never really gets a full picture of Chris, or what their marriage is like. After they’ve settled down, Chris spends more and more time working, or in the British version of the Army Reserves, or drinking with his buddies. Sarah, bored, decides it’s the right time for a baby. But when her son is born, it’s not the beautiful experience she planned for. Chris is barely present; Jonathan requires a C-section after days of labor; Sarah is in a lot of pain and has trouble breastfeeding, and the nurses are cold. But things go from bad to worse when Sarah brings the baby home and Chris is too busy to help care for him, or for Sarah. And then the kicker: Chris announces he’s met someone else. He’s leaving her to take care of the baby and manage her life all by herself.

Being Sarah Chilton is touted by its publishers as the next Bridget Jones's Diary , but it’s an uneven book that does not live up to that comparison. Sarah is a nice enough narrator, but she misses the clues that Chris is more Mr. Right Now than Mr. Right. She seems more eager to just get married and settle down than to make sure she’s with the right person. And because the book is written as a diary, the reader only gets Sarah’s impression of Chris, and doesn’t get to evaluate him for herself.

The second part of the book is funnier, as Sarah pulls herself up by her bootstraps and gets on with her life. While still not up to Bridget Jones’ standards, Sarah is self-deprecating and wry. Clocking in at just over 90 minutes on my Kindle, this is a fast read that would be a good companion for the pool or the beach. Even so, I was left wondering why author Briddon decided to write a comedy. She counsels women who have had traumatic birth experiences, as Sarah did. But the nature of the diary/book and the requirements of comedy led Briddon to downplay Sarah’s trauma and recovery in favor of other events in her life. I did enjoy Being Sarah Chilton, but I was also left wondering whether a drama featuring traumatic birth and post-partum depression might be a more natural fit for the author, rather than chasing after Bridget Jones’ tail.

Thanks to John Hunt Publishing for the book in exchange for an honest review.