One house in Silchester, England, brings together three unlikely groups of people in this novel of deceit, debt and escalating — but unrealized — hopes.
Liz and Jonathan Chambers are homeowners up to their eyeballs in money troubles, scrambling to pay both the mortgage on their Russell Street house and the loan against a local tutorial college they’ve purchased. When their bills reach towering heights, they’re forced to take action — and must move with their rebellious 14-year-old, Alice, to a small flat above the school they run. Scared by the turn of events, Jonathan and Liz approach Marcus Witherstone, a real estate agent, about how to handle the mess their unsold home is bringing them, and he makes a proposition: lease it out.
The new tenants are Ginny and Piers, a fashionable couple from London seeking to escape the hustle-and-bustle of the city as they wait for Piers’ acting prospects to finally pan out. With their friend Duncan, they arrive in Silchester to rent the Russell Street property — and soon meet Alice, who frequently sneaks into her old garage to smoke clandestine cigarettes. While that treachery is happening, Liz finds herself in a precarious situation, too . . . with Marcus. As kind, well-meaning Jonathan is left to solve their financial troubles and Marcus’s wife, Althea, becomes obsessed with getting their eldest son a fabulous scholarship, Liz and Marcus’ lies begin to stack up neatly . . . and then become frayed at the edges, threatening to destroy everything.
As much as I became initially engaged in Madeleine Wickham’s A Desirable Residence, all the attraction here is centered on unlikeable, misanthropic people finally getting their just desserts in the end. From scheming, bored Marcus to ungrateful, uncharitable Liz, I struggled to find one character with whom connect in this British novel.
Bratty Alice couldn’t have been more unjust to Jonathan, her bumbling but sweet father, and more than once in the book I found myself wanting to reach in and slap her. She’s a self-absorbed teenager, yes, and I could respect the fact that her behavior was realistic, but who wants to spend 293 pages reading about a rude, deluded 14-year-old? As she began forcing her presence on Ginny, Piers and Duncan, I became more and more agitated. Couldn’t she see she wasn’t wanted? That she was intruding? That she was annoying? Even if the new residents of her old house didn’t feel that way, I certainly did.
What could have saved this book from becoming a soulless mess was a dash of humor, warmth or humanity. Demonstrating some growth. Some maturity. Some sincerity. And though I did find myself smiling inwardly toward the end at an unexpected turn of events, for the most part? The bad people stayed bad. The selfish people stayed selfish. Marcus redeemed himself slightly in my eyes, but Liz — Liz, one of our central characters — didn’t get what she deserved. I wanted a blow-out, a reckoning . . . I wanted an epic battle complete with tears and divulsions. But I was disappointed.
Wickham is better known to most of us as Sophie Kinsella, the nom de plume under which she wrote the best-selling Shopaholic series. While her writing is fluid and enjoyable, her characters — the anchors of any story — were terrible. You won’t find me complaining about any “distance” between myself and these people, because I definitely felt like I got to know them through the course of A Desirable Residence. The real question is would I actually want to know them?
And the answer to that is, of course, a resounding no.
With so much great women’s fiction and chick lit out there just waiting to be devoured, I can’t recommend this one. It was boring, lifeless and grating — though I did manage to finish it, so I guess that says something . . . mostly about the quality of Wickham’s writing, which was fast-paced and readable. I didn’t hate it — but didn’t love it, either. For good British chick lit, look no further than Jill Mansell — and don’t waste your time reading mediocre books.
2.5 out of 5!