Tuesday, 6 January 2009

When We Were Bad by Charlotte Mendelson

I really disliked Charlotte Mendelson's first novel, Love in Idleness, but was tempted to try this one by the excellent reviews. On the whole they were well deserved. Mendelson's prose is witty and sharp and she manages her host of characters and the plot well. Leo and Frances, the "bad" siblings who put themselves before family, are well-drawn and sympathetic; Frances's escape from an unhappy marriage, lurching through a series of epiphanies to the beginning of happiness, was moving and powerful, and Claudia, the matriarch who could so easily be a monstrous caricature, is instead attractive and fallible. I found Emily and Simeon, the younger children unable or unwilling to leave the family home, to be ciphers; Emily's return to the family fold to support her mother was unconvincing and seemed merely to serve as a contrast for Frances. One episode of Love in Idleness that I still remember, and that still makes me cringe, is the description of the heroine arranging her most interesting shampoos along the side of the bath, hoping to impress the object of her affections; Frances is made to do the same thing with her paperbacks in this novel, in the heat of her lust for Jay, which made me cringe all over again. Apart from that moment, and the limited expression of the minor characters, the book succeeds in dramatising and exposing the power and frailty of a family.


  1. I've been meaning to read something by Mendelson for a while now. By the sounds of it, although When We Were has been damned by your faint praise, I should try it rather than Love in Idleness.

    I confess I keep getting distracted from contemporary writing by my favourite Victorian novelists.

  2. Oh dear - I'm afraid most of my praise is faint! It's worth reading for Frances's story, I think, even if other parts of it are weaker.