Almost English Paperback – 24 Apr 2014
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‘Charlotte Mendelson is much admired by the cognoscenti and Almost English ought to be a bestseller. The account of a girl from a family of Hungarian aunts, dealing with love and old lechers at a ghastly boarding school in the 1980s, is sheer bliss ― pure rueful comedy with endless resourcefulness . . . I adore her novels and wish there were many more of them’ Philip Hensher, Spectator
‘Mendelson’s keen eye for what makes relationships tick has already led to a place on the shortlist for the Women’s (formerly Orange) Prize and new novel Almost English is as good as we’d hoped . . . This funny, wise and heart-warming 1980s-set novel is perfect summer reading’ Elle
‘Charlotte Mendelson’s fourth novel is a deliciously funny tale of dysfunctional families. The Farkases recall characters from fairy tales or Roald Dahl: an all-female household comprising three pensioners, an abandoned wife and a teenage girl squeezed into a tiny flat “in the barely respectable depths of Bayswater”. Reading Mendelson’s easy, assured prose is like sinking into something soft and velvety’ Telegraph Top 10 Summer Holiday Reads
‘Exotic, magnificent and just a little bit sinister, it is the Hungarian characters who take over this beautifully written novel . . . Mendelson's novels inhabit similar territory to those of Maggie O'Farrell, with the same capacity for extreme noticing, the same profound emotional intelligence shaping the characters and driving the narrative. But Mendelson's world is sharper, her sense of the world a little more cynical. Almost English has been longlisted for this year's Booker; it deserves to win for the quality of the writing alone . . . Almost English is a delight. Beautifully written, warm, funny and knowing, it manages to seize an entire slice of Europe for itself, a vast empire full of new and interesting questions about how close, and how far apart, all these postwar worlds have made us. Above all, it is written with love. And good food’ Observer
‘Charlotte Mendelson’s Man Booker Prize-longlisted novel takes that most English of literary genres – the boarding school comedy – and spices it with exotic ingredients drawn from Hungarian culture . . . Almost English is Mendelson’s fourth novel – her previous book, When We Were Bad (2007), was shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction – and it demonstrates a mastery of narrative craft . . . the prose is a pure joy . . . And the whole book is sprinkled with handsome Hungarian phrases – Krumplisaláta, Hogy vagy, Egyszersmind – like a strudel dusted with sugar. It makes for a deliciously moreish read’ Financial Times
‘The Booker longlisted novel is a warm, wry and lively account of teenager Marina . . . the humanity in Mendelson’s observations and her clever, comic writing make this a sparkling treat’ Metro
‘Almost English is long-listed for this year’s Man Booker Prize, and Charlotte Mendelson writes of the inner monologues and quiet frustrations that plague an all-female, half-Hungarian household trying to fit into society with a wry humour that carries echoes of Zadie Smith and Zoe Heller’ Stylist Top 10 must-reads of August
‘Mendelson’s wonderfully tortured Man Booker longlisted drama of secrets and longings . . . In a novel packed with sly observation and stealthy wit, this is just one moment: Almost English is a finely executed comedy of manners, with a dark side . . . Mendelson has produced three critically acclaimed novels already, including the Orange Prize-shortlisted When We Were Bad. Here again, she masterminds events with wit and ingenuity, shifting moods from darkness to light in an instant, and delivering some glorious moments of uproarious comedy. In Marina and Laura’s troubled relationship she finds a powerful source of dramatic tension; but it’s not the only one. Plot twists abound . . . Tensions build, a real crisis looms, and family history is revealed . . . But Almost English isn’t blinkered, or naïve. One of its charms is its apparent simplicity, masquerading as something light; just a good read. Don’t be fooled. Call it Jane Austen for the 21st century – a novel on a small scale, full of private preoccupations and a mischievously overblown supporting cast; a novel that nevertheless says something profound about the human condition’ Scotsman
‘Charlotte Mendelson's characters are always in some kind of exile – literal, metaphorical and quite often both . . . People are constantly either furiously stifling dangerous secrets or rushing to declare them, only to be thwarted at the last minute; misunderstandings multiply and create horrible collision courses; the emotionally desperate are on the verge of being overwhelmed by those more charismatic and canny. All these disasters and near-disasters are recounted in heady prose that manages to unite the comic, the melodramatic and the straightforwardly moving. Almost English, her fourth novel, has just been longlisted for the Man Booker prize and it isn't difficult to see why: it is a little masterpiece of characterisation and milieu.There is plenty of plot and movement in Almost English, many changes of scene and points of view. It all adds to the book's considerable energy, but is not its main achievement . . . Mendelson is wonderful on the fraught mother-daughter bond and on both the claustrophobia and delights of domestic family life, which are rendered in sentences crammed with telling incidentals. But where Mendelson succeeds is in the way she shows us how hard we will fight to escape what we love most; how we jeopardise it even when we want to protect it more than anything’ Guardian
Longlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2013 and the Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction 2014: the extraordinary, warm and witty novel from the Orange Prize shortlisted author of When We Were Bad.See all Product description
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Top customer reviews
I wouldn't say this is a great book but it's an enjoyable read. The three old ladies are wonderful creations, the writing is sharp and funny and the plot keeps moving along nicely. I agree that the ending is a bit improbable but the author wisely left some questions open rather than tying everything up too neatly.
Marina has left Ealing School for Girls to pursue her A-Levels at a co-educational boarding school, Combe Abbey, but quickly realises she has made a mistake. In love with another student, she determinedly keeps up with her science studies, despite an affinity for history. She also becomes entangled with a student in the year below, Guy Viney, whose father Alexander turns out to be a historian she very much admires.
Meanwhile her mother Laura, beholden to her vanished husband's elderly relatives for taking them both in, misses her daughter dreadfully and drifts through work, an affair, and a lot of thinking. I didn't find her story particularly interesting. I found Marina quite a well-written teenager though, very much the obsessive and passionate girl whose longings are clouding her judgement.
To be honest, I wasn't enamoured on the whole. I listened to this as an audiobook and could have stopped several times through lack of interest but kept going. I didn't find the family history particularly interesting either, Laura's obsession with her 17-year-old daughter a little overdone, the story with the Vineys didn't grab me either.
I read this because it made the longlists for both the Women's Prize and the Man Booker, but it wasn't for me. Fairly forgettable, and I'm disappointed because I'd expected more.
The cultural references aside, the story is one of 3 generations of women and the way in which their lives intertwine and veer off from one another - being pulled together and coming loose, but never being severed entirely, as they are always family of one kind or another.
I enjoyed the range of characters - the older relatives being slight caricatures did not affect my enjoyment of them and the mother and daughter figures show the different kinds of struggles that women of different ages and circumstances can find themselves in.
There are lighter and darker moments in this book, but it was both enjoyable and compelling read and unlike other reviewers, I was carried through the book by the elegant writing and storyline.
The characters are likeable and believable. I really identified with Marina in particular. The supporting characters are good too. The elderly aunts and grandmother are eccentric without being ridiculous, and the upper class family with whom Marina gets entangled are toe-curling but accurate. There are plenty of cringe-inducing scenes where you squirm with embarrassment along with the characters. Marina's stay at her boyfriend's parents' country house made me sweat every agonising moment with her. It's not a comfortable read for that reason, but any reader who's ever been in socially difficult situation (and who hasn't?) will recognise the plight of the character here.
It touches from time to time on mental illness, as both Laura and Marina display symptoms of mental disorder, but it never explicitly goes down that route. As someone who has suffered from mental health problems, I felt the depiction of the symptoms and the feelings was done very accurately, and I also liked how she understood that life still goes on around your condition, and some days are worse than others. It is a realistic portrayal of what it's like to have a mental illness without descending into melodrama and without ever explicitly being 'about' that issue.
The plot gets a bit odd towards the end, with a coincidental connection that is never fully explained and doesn't quite work, and the ending frustrated me by being rushed and inconclusive. Mendelson builds up to a potentially very interesting situation, but then it isn't resolved on the page, making me feel like the best few chapters had never been written.
Overall, the writing is good, it is gripping, and the characters feel real. As a piece of social commentary it is spot on, and it captures emotions brilliantly. It's generally natural and believable, but the plot and ending let it down a bit. Nevertheless, I'd recommend it as an enjoyable and interesting read.
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