The Comfort of Others by Kay Langdale

Light and shade…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

Eleven-year-old Max is dictating a story to a Dictaphone his mother gave him, inspired by a visiting author who told his class that writers are people who ‘notice things’. The story he is telling is of his life, and of the summer in which the book is set. Max lives with his single mother and has never known his father. As a result, he and his mother have been very close, but now she’s found a new boyfriend and suddenly has less time for Max. To make things worse, the boyfriend clearly sees Max as a nuisance. Max is feeling rather unhappy and lonely.

Opposite lives Minnie and her older sister Clara, two elderly spinsters still occupying the big house their parents lived in, back before they sold all their land to allow a housing estate to be built – the housing estate Max lives in. Now they’re poor and struggling to keep the house in good repair. Minnie is also rather lonely. Her window faces Max’s and they often notice each other, and when she sees him begin to dictate his story, it occurs to her that maybe she should write her story too, in an attempt to finally come to terms with some dark episodes in her past. As the summer progresses, these two people strike up an unlikely friendship…

This is not a book I would have chosen to read, but I was sent two unsolicited copies of it by the publisher, so felt I ought to at least give it a try. So I’m as surprised as anyone to discover it’s been one of the books of the summer so far for me. It’s very well written and the characterisation is great. The journal format of both sections means it slips in and out of present and past tense, but always appropriately to the story being told at the time. Young Max’s voice doesn’t always ring quite true for an eleven-year-old, but his observations of his mother and his own feelings about the changes that are happening around him feel completely authentic for a rather reserved and quiet boy of that age. Minnie is also excellent and through her we get taken back to the past – ’60s, I think – at a time when the rigid class system in Britain was beginning to break down.

Max’s story is quite light – although he’s going through a difficult patch, Langdale doesn’t over-egg the pudding by forcing him to go through major traumas or by making his mother and her boyfriend actively cruel to him. They’re just a bit neglectful of his feelings and maybe a bit dismissive of his needs, but there’s never any doubt that his mother loves him. She’s a beautician who works in a room of their house, and a lot of Max’s observations about her and her clients are very funny. Minnie becomes a kind of surrogate aunt to him, offering him tea and sympathy when he needs it.

Kay Langdale

Minnie’s story on the other hand gets very dark indeed at points. In fact, there is one jarring note for me with the book, and I can’t go into detail without spoilers – but there is one particularly upsetting scene which I feel is more detailed than necessary and is too grim for the general tone of the book. It’s crucial to the story, so it’s not its inclusion that bothered me – rather that it is written too graphically. Otherwise, though, Minnie’s part of the book gives it depth and an adult voice, and the two stories together provide an excellent balance of light and shade.

Made me laugh, made me cry, and left me smiling – what more could you ask for really? Definitely a surprise hit and one I’m happy to recommend to anyone who likes a well written, character driven story.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Hodder & Stoughton.

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Book 3 of 20

41 thoughts on “The Comfort of Others by Kay Langdale

  1. This sounds very interesting! I’m pleased that the boy’s life isn’t beset by trauma and evil deeds, there seems to be far too much of that in literature these days. Not one for me, but this is a very nice review and I hope the book gets the recognition it deserves 🙂

    • I thought it wasn’t for me either, but sometimes it’s nice to read something a bit different. They’ve now started sending me copies of her next one though, which really, really, REALLY doesn’t look like my kind of thing. I wonder if I could do them for harrassment… 😉 I was pleased about the boy too – I get fed up with it being made to appear that every child’s life is filled with misery and abuse…

      • Oh no, can you hide them under a rug or something? Pretend you haven’t seen it? I suppose you can’t blame them for trying – you are the best reviewer in the land! 😀

        • Haha, thank you! I have a whole pile of unsolicited books, mostly from them, and they weigh on my conscience! I keep meaning to email them and ask them to take me off their women’s fiction list and put me on their crime list if they must send me unsolicited books, but it seems so ungrateful somehow! 😉

    • I agree with Lucy. I get tired of books in which a single parent (always a mother) finds some new man who is interested in getting into her bed, so she treats her kid(s) like they’re in the way of her self-esteem building sexual escapades. Like she doesn’t know where children come from. :/

      • Yes, me too. I get tired of all kids havng miserable lives in general – most kids and parents probably just muddle through the way previous generations did! This one felt much more realistic since there was never any question of Max really being treated badly.

  2. Actually, that does sound rather enticing – or you’ve made it sound like that. Not usually a book I would pick up just looking at the blurb and cover, especially since it sounds like it’s not quite sure of whether it’s a darker or lighter book. But perhaps that’s a good thing in a period where every book endeavours to be as dark as possible.

    • Yes, I thought it was going to be feel-good chick-lit from the blurb, but it was actually a good deal more substantial than that, though still mostly light overall. I seem to be on Hodder & Stoughton’s list for ‘women’s fiction’ for some reason, and my heart usually sinks when they arrive. But I’ve read two of them now and been pleasantly surprised both times, so I should maybe try to get rid of my prejudices… 😉

  3. It’s not a book I would pick up at first glance either. I wonder if this is going to a problem for the publisher — especially if it’s a book that deserves to be read, as you say. Maybe the title sounds too much like a Lifetime TV movie and that puts potential readers off??

    • I can’t decide, really, if the blurb makes it sound lighter than it is – the cover certainly screams women’s fiction at me. And I think it probably is women’s fiction – but well-written and more substantial than I usually credit that genre with being. I think my own prejudices get in the way of reading this type of book sometimes…

  4. I’ve seen a few reviews of this now and am warming to it – but not keen on graphic scenes of grimness. I wonder if this feeding off that thing in chick-lit to sandwich a traumatic thing into a light novel, which seems to happen all the time and often jars like mad.

    • Hmm… I don’t read much chick-lit so wasn’t aware of that trend, but I’d say then that, yes, that feels exactly like what this book did. The event in the graphic scene was essential to the story, but I really felt the description went too far, and put some images in my mind I’d rather not have had there – and that seemed out of synch with the general tone of the book. But the rest more than made up for it…

  5. I have to admit, I’m quite tempted, FictionFan. It doesn’t sound the sort of story I would usually choose. But I do like those authentic-sounding portraits of people. And I’m intrigued by the journal format. It doesn’t always quite work, but when it does, it can be really effective.

    • I was genuinely surprised by how much I enjoyed it. The quality of the writing helped, and the characterisation, but the story was also more substantial than I usually credit ‘women’s fiction’ with being. The journal format isn’t my favourite either, but she handled it very well, and the boy’s voice brought in a lot of humour…

  6. It sounds as though the blurb doesn’t get this one quite right – maybe your review will get it a wider audience.

    • I couldn’t decide whether the blurb was good or bad – I think my prejudices were getting in the way mostly. I’ve read a couple of books they’ve sent me that I’d never have chosen, and ended up enjoying both – maybe I I need to try to be less sniffy about ‘women’s fiction’…

  7. It sounds like a lovely, character-driven story, nearly spoiled by a scene that I have to wonder if the author included or was talked into its inclusion to generate more interest. Either way, it sounds like my kind of book. I would probably skip reading that scene.

    • I think the scene must have been the author’s choice because it’s really the central point that the whole story hangs on. It was just written in too detailed a way for me – it put images in my mind I’d rather not have had there. I think in a sense it’s a victim of the excellent writing – it really made me ‘see’ the scene. But the rest of the book more than made up for it – I’ll look out for more from this author now.

  8. Hmm, parts of this sound interesting, but the parts you’ve left out (the dark side of Minnie’s story) indicate I might ought to pass. I’m glad you found it mostly enjoyable, and I’m glad nothing too untoward happened to the boy (neglect is bad enough!).

    • The dark bits don’t take up too much of the story, though they explain Minnie’s character. But the tone of most of the book is lighter, funny and emotional, but in a good way. And poor Max was only neglected a tiny bit – he just had a hard time learning to share his mother. I was pleased, because I do get tired of reading horrible things about kids, as if somehow all children have miserable abuse-filled existences…

    • Ah, I’m glad I’m not alone then! I had never come across her before, and neither the blurb nor the cover drew me in. But I’m glad I managed to put my prejudices to one side, since I thoroughly enjoyed it and will look out for more of her books now… 😀

  9. I do like the sound of this although it isn’t one I’ve come across before(and like you I would probably have dismissed it based on the cover alone) That said I’m not opposed to women’s fiction per se but it is hard to find stuff that isn’t too focussed on the romantic stuff which doesn’t interest me very much. I had a prejudice against child narrators until last year when I read a few, all of which I found uplifting which is helpful when I normally read such grim books 😉

    • I don’t really try to avoid women’s fiction deliberately – the blurbs just rarely pull me in. And this blurb didn’t either, but the book turned out to be really good. And it’s not romance based at all, which is a major plus for me too. Child narrators are always tricky, but I liked Max a lot and he brought a lot of humour into it. I’ll definitely look out for more from her. 🙂

  10. I was actually surprised to see you reviewing a book like this, didn’t think it was your typical style, but glad you liked it anyway. Were you super annoyed when the publisher sent you two copies? I am personally really annoyed when they do that, which makes me sound like a spoiled book reviewer, but it’s like “do I have to do some freaking giveaway or something now”? It’s almost like they’re forcing you to market their books for them…

    • I very rarely get unsolicited books – maybe because they’ve read some of my one-star reviews? 😉 But Hodder & Stoughton seem to have me on their women’s fiction list and I always feel guilty about not reading them. Haha! The second one felt like getting a reminder for an unpaid bill…

    • When I started it, I really expected to read a few chapters and then abandon it, but it won me over completely! That’s the second time this publisher has snuck one in under my guard… 😉

  11. Interested to read this review, FF. I read a novel of Kay Langdale’s for a section of my PhD about surrogacy fiction, a theme of her wildly entitled, Her Giant Octopus Moment. I liked it way more than I expected. Wonderful characterisations, especially of 10-year-old Scout. There’s a newish category in US publishing called ‘upmarket women’s fiction’ – think chick lit with literary aspirations – and I think Langdale’s novels qualify. I will read more by her…once I put the PhD to bed.

    • That’s interesting – I hadn’t heard of that category before, but it’s often the fluffiness that puts me off women’s fiction, so the addition of literary aspirations would be a definite plus as far as I’m concerned. I thought the characterisation in this one was great too, and although I didn’t always think Max sounded 11 (too good a vocabulary and too much general knowledge for his age) I enjoyed him very much. I’ll be looking out for more from her too…

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