Margaret Steggles is a teacher in her early twenties who has just moved to London with her parents during the Second World War. She is bookish and plain, a romantic who 'feels too much.' Walking one day on Hampstead Heath, she finds a ration book, and upon returning it to its owner she is drawn into the glamorous and artistic world of playwright Gerard Challis and his family. Unbeknownst to Margaret, however, her close friend Hilda (sunny and pretty where Margaret is dreamy and awkward) has also been drawn, somewhat reluctantly, into Gerard Challis' world as well.
Gibbon's signature sense of humour is very much in evidence in Westwood's characters; Margaret's brittle, nasty mother, the careless arrogance of the Challises, the explosive, hysterical passion of Zita the Jewish refugee, Gerard Challlis's arrogant sexism, Hilda's breezy disregard for anything remotely unpleasant. Against the evocative backdrop of North London, the world of brilliant, cheating husbands and charming, bohemian wives is expertly drawn and very entertaining.
I feel I have to issue a warning though - A quote from The Times on the back of the book suggests that Gibbons is the Jane Austen of the twentieth century. If that's what you're expecting, you will be disappointed. Gibbons is clever and funny, but also incurably light and frothy. Cold Comfort Farm is her best work, and Westwood is very clearly inferior. The characters often seem compromised for comedy value and the story feels rudderless and unstructured. Too much time is spent on one thing and then too little on another. Doubtless this is a funny and sharp book, but it lacks substance and form, which ultimately renders it rather forgettable.