In Susie Boyt's new novel, we meet the main character, thirty-eight-year-old Harriet, just as she is ending her last session with her psychiatrist after several years of therapy. Harriet, tall, ungainly, with flaming red hair, has not had an easy life; abused by her mother; rebuffed by her brother; even Paris loathes her, she tells us, where the assistants in the city's shoe shops gasp with horror when she asks to try a continental size 43. Harriet thinks herself exaggerated and overblown: "I am a sort of caricature. I am big, garish, I'm overt. When I'm in a car with people they wind their windows down to let a bit of me out!" After time spent in a psychiatric hospital and follow-up sessions with her psychiatrist, Harriet realizes the time has come to take control of her life and with a large inheritance to help her, she decides to open her own nursery school - but this will not be an ordinary school; this will be the nursery school of her dreams.
As Harriet sets to work to realize her dream, creating a wonderful establishment where academic achievement is eschewed in favour of art, music and creative play, the reader begins to ask oneself who Harriet is doing this for. Is it so she can give the children in her care the sort of early life experience that was denied to her, is she trying to make herself feel better by attempting to cancel out what happened to her when she was a child, or is Harriet understandably trying to feel valued and to convince her family that she is worth taking notice of? And are Harriet's dreams of her own little piece of heaven finally realized, or does life have a few more punches in store for our heroine?
First-person narrated by Harriet, the reader is immediately pulled into her eccentric and bewildering world as we follow her on her difficult journey through life. This novel is beautifully written, emotionally profound, poignant and blackly humorous, and Susie Boyt (who, I was interested to discover, is the great-granddaughter of Sigmund Freud) has written this story with a deep psychological insight. I found this an absorbing and involving read and felt it was impossible not to feel for Harriet, to want to cheer her on in her endeavours and to intensely hope for a happy ending for her - but do we get one? I obviously have to leave that for prospective readers to discover.