TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 24 September 2014
The four aristocratic Hasty sisters are in trouble. Their beloved father Rufus, known to all as the Man, has fallen deeply into debt and, frightened of old age and loss of looks and weary of philandering, has blown his brains out all over the drawing room. (Saunders hints there may be another reason he kills himself, but doesn't tell us what it is.) The family's ancestral home, Melismate, must be sold to pay off debts (and is in a ruinous state so won't fetch enough), the girls' dotty mother Rose is no practical help and, with no decent training, none of the girls have proper careers or incomes. Rufa, the oldest and most hardworking, makes some money as a local caterer and maker of jams and chutneys, but it's barely enough to pay food bills. Nancy, the glamorous buxom sister, earns some money as a barmaid, but it's not a living wage. And the two younger sisters are no help - Lydia is mourning her divorce from laid-back hippy husband Ran (as much a philanderer as her father) and struggling to bring up her small daughter Linnet, and Selena is still at school though (despite great cleverness) threatening to drop out altogether.
Rufa racks her brains and eventually comes up with a solution to the family's problem - all the four sisters have as an asset is their looks, so she and Nancy must find hugely rich husbands who will then save Melismate and pay for repairs - and they have to act fast! Rufa and Nancy relocate to London, stay with their old nanny and, with the help of her gay lodger Roshan and the sale of a brooch given to Rufa by the family's dear friend Edward Reculver, the girls acquire lovely wardrobes (I'd no idea one sapphire brooch could fetch this much!) and launch themselves in upper-class society. But the rich men prove not so easy to net. And is marrying for money sensible in any circumstances? The girls increasingly begin to think their plan may not be such a good idea - and even when Rufa seems to achieve the impossible and find a rich man (and one she never expected to marry) who she loves, it becomes clear that where money is involved marriage will never be straightforward... will the girls ever get their happy end?
This is a very entertaining book, with some very lovable characters (particularly earnest Rufa, quietly passionate Edward, exuberant Nancy and bookish Selena), and as so always in her books Saunders constructs the story in a way that makes you have to read on (late into the night in my case on two occasions). I thought elements of the Rufa/Edward relationship were very original and beautifully depicted, and was glad when Selena, the youngest sister (hardly present in the first half of the book) started taking a bigger role. Nancy's misadventures were hilarious, and her relationship with her niece Linnet and Linnet's bears 'the Ressany brothers' very touching. Saunders makes you really care about the girls' happiness - and I liked the inventive way that she used great classic stories of the past ('Little Women', 'Pride and Prejudice') and made humorous variations on them.
However, I have to say that this is a book that is most enjoyable if you don't think about it too hard, but just let yourself be carried along by the romantic and humorous flow. A lot of the characters don't stand up to that careful scrutiny - think about some of them too hard and they become either unconvincing or positively dislikeable. Worst of all in this regard was the Man, adored by all but at the same time a totally selfish womanizer, who refused to let his girls have any sort of independence, messed up their futures with his silly extravagances and finally took the easy (ish) way out. Characters throughout the book keep saying how much he loved his girls - but his attitude to paternity seems to have been deeply dodgy, both lax and over-protective. Rose comes across (until the final chapters) as naive to the point of stupidity or even madness - and why didn't she stand up for her girls over their education and help them to get some qualifications? Polly and Prudence were cartoonish villainesses, Tristan a flamboyant fool and little Linnet, though better portrayed than most children in popular fiction, came across as a bit nauseatingly cute at times (and why are all children in popular fiction so obsessed with scatology?). Even Rufa, the heroine, behaved in a very odd way at times - I couldn't believe she'd have done what she did with Tristan, particularly after what he'd told her. The plot also didn't entirely stand up to scrutiny. The family seemed to survive on nothing for an awfully long time after the Man's death while the girls hatched their plan, and there was no discussion among the family about legal issues - to who Melismate belonged after the Man killed himself, for example. I couldn't believe the whole Edward/Prudence/Tristan/Rufa scenario - it seemed uncharacteristically callous for Edward to expect Rufa to wait on Prudence for a week, and unlikely that Rufa wouldn't have confronted him about Prudence's behaviour. And the Ran/Polly/Lydia saga went on too long - I didn't believe Ran would have fallen for Polly in any case, or at least not to the extent of having her move in with him. And the whole Rufa/Tristan story just didn't convince me bearing in mind Rufa's character. Also - why does no one in romantic fiction ever appear to sort out decent contraception?
'The Marrying Game' is fun, and in terms of writing a cut above a lot of chick-lit and romantic fiction. I think the problem was that I enjoyed 'Bachelor Boys' so much that I expected this book to be as enjoyable - and for me it wasn't as convincing. While 'Bachelor Boys' provided a wickedly sharp portrayal of middle-class London society today, with some very moving and believable plot twists, I felt this novel was catering more to the 'Downton Abbey' mentality that loves stories about the glamorous upper-classes, and to romantic cliches. Still, of its kind it is decidedly enjoyable, and I'd recommend it for mid-week switch-off reading without a doubt. I just hope for her next adult novel that Saunders produces something as good as 'Bachelor Boys' - that'd really be worth reading several times.