As a two-person story, I must say I was more interested in teenager Marina than mother Laura. Both stories explore the idea of women who don't quite fit in.
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.
I must confess to being drawn to this book because of the Hungarian interest (having lived in Hungary and studied Hungarian) and I love the little glossary of Hungarian phrases at the back of the book (even with the odd typo.) The feel of the Hungarian accent is given through the exaggeration of the English spoken by the older Hungarian relatives and whilst this is a little heavy handed at times, it is a fairly accurate reflection of the exaggerated accents that some, but by no means all Hungarians have when speaking English.
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.
A moving, intelligently written novel about a mother and daughter each fighting to find her place in the world. The title is somewhat misleading - it's not about assimilating in a foreign culture, as it suggests, but rather social awkwardness in general. Mendelson captures brilliantly the sheer misery of adolescence, and of middle aged dissatisfaction with life. Marina is an awkward, geeky teenager who gets into a posh boarding school only to find it's far from what she expected. Laura is her mother, living with her ancient Hungarian in-laws after being abandoned by her husband, lonely and unhappy and missing her daughter. The novel is about both of their struggles, and their many misunderstandings of each other.
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.
I quite liked the first half, following Marina - a half Hungarian girl - who has chosen to go to boarding school, but now feels utterly homesick and yet unable to tell her family. Simultaneously the novel follows her rather ineffectual mother, Laura, who, since her husband left her, has had to live with his elderly Hungarian mother and her sisters, her life no longer her own. She too is pining - for Marina - but dare not say so... And then further characters enter the story... But as the book progressed, I found myself getting bored with the story, the wretched Hungarian women ("DAR-link!) and drippy Laura.
Almost English by Charlotte Mendelson, which appears on the 2013 Booker longlist, and tells the story of 16-year-old Marina and her mother Laura, both of whom live in a cramped two-bedroom flat in Bayswater with three elderly, increasingly eccentric Hungarian relatives of Laura's husband, who disappeared when Marina was a toddler leaving her mother forced to rely on the hospitality of his family for the next 13 years.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Laura, who is also in the midst of a dreary, passion-free affair with her charmless employer, is almost suicidally depressed. Meanwhile Marina, painfully awkward and a mile out of her depth socially, is desperately unhappy at the boarding school to which she has begged her family to send her. Marina can't bear to confess that Combe Abbey has been a disaster, and Laura, missing her daughter every second of every day, can't bear to ask her.
It's possible that this introduction to Almost English hasn't made it sound like a comedy, but that's precisely what it is, albeit an occasionally rather dark one. It's a novel about fitting in, about identity, and about keeping secrets, peppered with cringe-inducing misunderstandings and social confusion - Marina's country house weekend with her sort-of-boyfriend Guy and his wealthy family, all boisterous gun-dogs and dressing for dinner, is particularly excruciating, as is the complete lack of any privacy afforded to either Marina or Laura in the Bayswater flat (Marina's bedroom is a through-route to the flat's bathroom; Laura sleeps on the sofa and keeps her clothes in the sideboard. Marina's elderly aunts are fond of asking her loudly if she's menstruating).
Both Laura and Marina are frustratingly prone to poor decisions and skewed logic, but somehow still likeable - Marina perhaps more so than Laura, who comes across at first as being infuriatingly passive, but comes into her own as the story progresses. Rozsi, Zsuzsi and Ildi, the formidable but ultimately kind, protective relatives who have taken Laura under their wing, are a hoot, and not quite as interchangeable as they might have been in the hands of an author of lesser skill.
My main criticism of Almost English is really with its plot, which contains a couple of rather anticlimactic revelations and concludes rather implausibly, leaving some dangling loose ends. But ultimately the plot of this novel isn't really the point; it's character that matters here, and this is an observant and revealing exploration of what it's like to be part of two communities without quite fitting into either of them.
Saying that this book is primarily about elderly Hungarians probably limits its appeal- but it is the most interesting and entertaining book about elderly Hungarians that you could possibly imagine. Marina- the focus of the book- is their granddaughter and is trying to navigate their world and that of the minor public school that she has pushed hard to attend and is now in a turmoil of anxiety, uncertainty and regret about. The book perfectly captures that sense of teenage grandiosity and intensity combined with complete misreading of situations and a catastrophic imagination, familiar to many from their own teenage years. The relationship between Marina and her (English) mother is detailed with heart breaking delicacy. There is a stomach-knotting anxiety that runs through the book, and through the reader- but only because you desperate want things to go well and would love to leap into the book and sort the various characters out of their messes and misreadings. This is a really enjoyable read - and you learn about the Austro- Hungarian empire- what more could you ask for?
Dreadful book... I rarely write reviews, but felt compelled to do so in this case, because it was just so awful. I kept thinking that surely 'something' would happen soon. It didn't. Pages and pages of rambling that went absolutely nowhere. I hated all the characters and just wanted to give them a good shake. If I read once more "I'll tell her now" and then she didn't, I think I would have screamed. How on earth this was nominated for an award I will never understand. I never give up on a book once I've started it, but came very very close with this one.