26 June 2011
If you don't know about Rebecca Woodhead, you should.
Her life story is amazing, and she is something of a Twitter phenom (you can find her as @rebeccawoodhead on Twitter), as well as a devoted promoter and cheerleader for readers and writers. The path she took to her self-published debut novel, Palaces and Calluses is amazing, inspiring, and a true lesson in love and dedication.
Palaces and Calluses is a fun, romantic, sumptuously detailed novel: it offers a tried-and-true story from a unique, modern, and eminently readable perspective.
The basic storyline of Palaces and Calluses will not be new to fans of chick lit, but that doesn't interfere with the story's success. Woodhead takes a familiar plot and makes it her own, creating captivating, well-drawn characters and interesting twists and turns to move the story along, all written in clear, appealing prose, with some wonderful moments of lush detail - and lots of fun.
The novel, set in England, opens on the evening of Mary's eleventh wedding anniversary, as she prepares to surprise her husband with an expensive party in their Chelsea mansion to mark the milestone. Eerily, Mary is wearing her wedding gown from all those years ago, even though it's a public party. This is the first indication the reader gets that, well, there's something about Mary.
For me, it got even weirder - and more interesting -- when Mary's pre-party thoughts revealed that she met her gazillionaire husband at the tender age of 15 and married him a year later. For a novel set in the present, this is an uncommon start: the child-bride, especially one who met her dashing, decade-older husband in the food hall at Harrods while she was on a school trip.
The opening scene, where we watch Mary as she watches the party preparations and anticipates her husband's arrival, made me deliciously nervous. I was half-expecting the novel to take a Gothic turn, as the heroine ruminated that her husband, a jewelry designer "Had sculpted her into something better, more polished, than she would otherwise have become. She was ... [his] finest design". As this Mary-as-creation language increased, so did my belief that this novel was about to make a jump to sci-fi or Steampunk.
But it didn't, and it doesn't. The husband comes home and events transpire which reveal to Mary that he's been having an affair. After a terrible night alone, where the still-young heroine begins to realize that her friends have left with her husband (and during which the rending of her wedding gown had me looking for the Gothic again), Mary is packed off to her parents' home in the Cotswolds to rest and recover.
This is where the novel really gets going, and where Woodhead reveals her outstanding descriptive ability as well as her sense of humor. We meet Mary's charming, kooky parents, and the family's beloved, intuitive Border Collie, Rock, who ends up playing a pivotal role in the story's main narrative.
Over the ensuing pages, Mary grapples with the remnants of her marriage - and the realization that she had handed control of her life and her dreams straight from her mother to her husband - and begins to put her life back together. This is the stuff of strong, interesting writing for women, and Woodhead does it very, very well. Mary is a complex, well-crafted character - I loved her sometimes, and I hated her sometimes, but, most importantly, I cheered for her -- I wanted her to figure things out. There's an interesting and subtle symbolism to Mary's return home that speaks of rebirth and a sort of second childhood: as we watch this woman-girl revert to a de facto infancy, then (hopefully) develop and emerge from it as a real adult for the first time in her life. This metaphor isn't overdone, so it works well, reinforcing the reader's investment in Mary.
Palaces and Calluses has all the important trappings of a fun, modern chick lit read: hilarious situations, well-drawn supporting characters (some sweet, quirky and over-the-top, others vaguely malevolent) . a mysterious potential love interest, attention-grabbing locations, a dash of celebrity, and a bit of fashion. There are also some lush - and luscious -- descriptions of food in the novel: they're so realistic and yummily detailed that they had me craving pancakes in the middle of the afternoon!
The story moves quickly, making many small side jaunts, introducing characters and places to build and maintain a reader's interest. It's clear this debut author has done her homework and invested herself completely and well in this story and its characters. Palaces and Calluses left me wanting more: more about Mary and her life, more about the other characters and their stories, and more about the faces and places of the Cotswolds.
I'm already looking forward to the next installment of The Cotswolds Chronicles. Rebecca Woodhead has found her niche and her passion!