I’m having a bit of a Jenny Eclair moment. Since discovering her absolutely BRILLIANT podcast, which she does with the adorable Judith Holder, I’ve re-read her past novels, Camberwell Beauty, Life, Death and Vanilla Slices, and Moving. (I am giving you the links to Amazon so you can buy them. Since I got chucked off Amazon Associates as I never sold anything, this is entirely out of the goodness of my own heart as I don’t receive a penny if you go on to buy them.)
Eclair is a brilliant writer. It’s funny, as I don’t particularly like how her books make me feel, but they are strangely compelling. The themes are dark.; sadness and melancholy well from every page, and I’m a happy ending sort of woman so it is unusual for me to carry on reading if I suspect things aren’t going to end well.
Actually, that’s unfair. Her books do have a kind of happy ending, but they are all a bit too real. They certainly have a resolution – which is very important to me, I HATE unresolved books and will hurl them out of the window in disgust – but it’s a resolution which is hard-won, human, and complicated.
There is none of the stand up about Eclair’s writing. It is funny at times, but not in the way you would expect from listening to her podcast or comedy routines. You can hear Northern cadences in her work but it’s never glib. It is a testament to her writing skills that I have read four of her novels on the trot and have not been wearied by repeated tropes and images that you often notice in other authors if you read a lot of their work at once.
Much as I love Liane Moriarty – and I really do, sincerely, adore her books – she will often compare a sleeping character to a sunbather. Harlen Coben constantly uses the simile ‘she greeted him like he was a recently released POW’ in his wonderful Myron Bolitar collection. Although saying that, Eclair is very fond of characters with freckles.
The crispness of Eclair’s writing is striking. Never ornate, images are used carefully so when they do appear they are memorable. A woman looking out of a window describes what she sees: ‘all that is visible … are trees and roofs, all those grey slate lids sitting on top of other people’s lives, road after road of memory boxes.’
That, to me, is an example of excellent writing. A strong, solid, and unusual metaphor which does exactly what metaphors should. Comparing roofs to lids which we can lift to peer into the ‘memory box’ of a house is inspired, and cleverly weaves in with the key themes of the novel.
That’s the trouble I find with Eclair. So many of her novels are to do with addressing and sorting the minutiae and layers of memory after a long life. Often, her characters are looking back, and having finally hit 50, this all too close to the bone. The definition of getting old is when you realise you look back more than you look forward. Eclair’s novels sound deeply within me like a struck tuning fork, and I have to force myself to stop sifting through old memories as her characters seem to be urging me to do.
In Life, Death and Vanilla Slices, an old woman in a coma sorts through all of her memories like a housewife. She restores order to the jumble and fragments of her life, picturing herself emptying the drawers of her brain and shelving memories neatly in her mind. I loved the way this conceit worked, it appealed to my recent obsession with keeping everything in its place to cope with Middle-Aged Rage.
Eclair is wise to keep her authorial voice unobtrusive, the characters speak for themselves and their narratives are delivered without judgement. Great compassion is there, even when presenting the most horrible and repellent of people. I admire Eclair for her ability to constantly challenge my perception and yet still keep me hooked. Characters you hate with utter certainty are the same ones you find yourself crying over at the end.
Eclair, in her stand up and podcast, can be cruel. Funny, yes. But cruel. Unapologetically so. (This is why the combination with the warm and comfortable Judith Holder works so well. I don’t want to make her sound too comfortable, she is just as happy to drop an F bomb as Eclair, but I always find it slightly shocking when she does so.)
In Eclair’s novels, her characters can be very unkind about women. Eclair’s prose has a hatpin sharpness when pricking the balloons of smugness, hypocrisy and self-indulgence. It made me shiver with unease when one of her characters remembers his wife, ‘ten years ago… when Alice was still the right side of fat and bothered to wear her contact lenses.’
Oooh ouch. I am so with Alice here. Eclair could be describing me. Is this what my Rob thinks when he beholds me stout, bespectacled, and make-up-free when he returns from work? This sentence is like a lance in my side. Now, the man who says this is a cheating wanker, but I find it interesting. Is this how some men see their wives or is it a reflection or manifestation of some kind of self-loathing found within the author?
Eclair is not afraid to explore the disappointments of life. The only reason I can bear reading her novels is that ultimately, she does seem to be able to wrestle some sense of redemption or resolution out of the chaos and mess of her character’s lives. Rob describes me as ‘a head in the clouds optimist’ and he’s right, I’ll dismiss worries like leaking roofs, dripping taps, and unlikeable children with an airy ‘it’ll be fine, I’m sure it will.’ But Eclair is unflinching in her ability to force you to look at life clearly – the good and the bad. She shows us that mess, and sadness, failed marriages and selfish children is all part of being alive – it would be nice if she had just a few more uncomplicated happy bits though.
Oh God I could listen to this podcast all day. The only thing wrong about it is it is too short. The format is straight forward, they start with a little natter – usually centering around food Judith Holder has brought in. The second half is the guest section and every guest so far has been brilliant. They started with Eve Pollard and familiar names such as Helen Lederer, Maria McErlane, Anneka Rice and Penny Smith. Other women I hadn’t heard of but loved immediately; I particularity enjoyed hearing Dillie Keane. I had never heard of Fascinating Aida but I’m so glad I have now and you must listen to/watch them
The one thing the guests have in common is they are women over 50 (they have the odd young-un and (shockingly) a man once) and they have all been wonderful. Warm, funny, sharp, but always entertaining and interesting.
There are so many highlights I haven’t got time to tell you them all but I will mention my absolute favourites.
In Episode 10 Eclair and Holder discuss their adventures staying in hotels. Eclair begins by talking about buying some Chardonnay and a snack box of cheese and biscuits which she planned to enjoy in bed after a bath. It is almost sinful the way she describes the anticipated pleasure of a bath, PJs, and a hotel bed all to herself accompanied only by cheese and biscuits and a bottle of wine. Sadly, she loses her snack box and oh ‘the crushing disappointment’ she feels when she discovered her plans have gone awry. ‘I should have tucked them in my pants,’ she says mournfully.
Holder then chats about her ‘nasty turn in the night’. She woke up with terrible chest pains and worried she was having a heart attack. She reassured herself it must be heartburn and, with no Gaviscon to hand, remembers milk was supposed to help.
All that was available was ‘four sachets of those little pots of milk’ which she ‘swigged back’. The image of Holder methodically unpeeling and knocking back four of these
for some reason made me laugh so much I snorted tea out of my nose and had to rewind the podcast.
This is what I love. The guests are great and very interesting, but I like the chat between Eclair and Holder best. They make me laugh every time I listen, and I wish the podcasts would come out more often.
There is something very comforting about it. It’s not that it’s comfortable, their chats can be filthy, shocking, uproariously funny and sometimes very sad. Eclair and Holder cover all sorts of aspects of every day life. From Holder moaning about Bridezilla daughters to Eclair discovering she wasn’t super fit, the bike she had hired was actually electric. ‘That’s why I wasn’t huffing and puffing and being sick!’ exclaims Eclair. (Ha! That’s Ep 11) Something about listening to two clever, hilarious, and wise women chat in this way makes me really happy.
I’d imagine in real life Eclair is a bit frightening, so it is important Holder is there as she brings some sweetness to Eclair’s laser sharp asides. A particularly good example of the chemistry between them is to be found in Ep 17 when Eclair describes how she learned to masturbate using the stair banisters. Her stories of sizing up new houses by evaluating the banister spacing for orgasm purposes had me howling with laughter. The absolute best bit, though, is Holder’s response to Eclair’s filthy tales. Her shrieks and hoots of outrage and gasps of shock before she dissolves into infectious giggles has me in stitches.
I follow both Eclair and Holder on twitter and would urge you to do so as well – they are very good value. However, I am sad to say I have been unable to control my fangirling and have tweeted them a few times.
I have had no response! However, despite this rude lack of acknowledgement of my gauche fangirling from both Eclair and Holding, I will bear no grudges and still recommend Eclair’s books and the Older and Wider Podcast to everyone I meet.
What do you think? Have you heard it? Or read any of Eclair’s books? Let me know! Also, I would love to hear any recommendations you have to keep the angst and despair of growing older at bay.