A Room with a View

Buy A ROOM WITH A VIEW by E M Forster

Horrors of horrors, when travelling cousins Lucy Honeychurch and Charlotte Bartlett reach their Florence hotel, instead of the beauty of Italy they find their suite has a horrid view only of the courtyard. This is not how their holiday was meant to begin at all. Help is at hand, however, because the Emersons, a father and son from slightly further down the ranks of the middle classes, care little for having something pretty outside the window (unrefined as they are), so they offer to switch rooms, and let Lucy and Charlotte have a room with a view.

This is almost as equally horrifying a prospect to Charlotte as not having a nice view at all, of course, because it leaves her and Lucy indebted to the uncouth Emersons. Lucy, on the other hand, finds the young and aloof George Emerson captivating. Charlotte falls under the spell of fellow guest Eleanor Lavish, who is writing a satirical novel about British tourists abroad (though only about the Emersons’ sort, not her own, obviously), and is the source of all the best gossip in the hotel (the elder Mr Emerson is possibly a murderer and maybe even a socialist). This leaves Lucy alone to indulge her curiosity about George.

Once Charlotte learns of this she of course whisks Lucy away to Rome, away from the risk of falling in love with someone entirely unsuitable. In Rome a far more suitable gentleman falls in love with Lucy and she even agrees to marry him, but George just isn’t sophisticated enough to give up that easily. Once back in England, Lucy unexpectedly finds herself caught in a most unsophisticated love triangle.

As with A Passage to India, this novel isn’t really about the Brits abroad. The trip to Florence is simply E M Forster’s conceit to satirise how the British are (or at least were) at home too. Most of the novel actually takes place back in England – or, at least, chocolate-box England. This is the England of rolling country estates, tennis before tea and going for a dip in the pond (with the vicar, no less) when it’s just too sunny and hot.

Forster again breaks his own cardinal rules of characterisation that he prattled on about in Aspects of the Novel. Most of his characters are little more than his dreaded ‘dummies’ – slaves to the plot and what he wants them to contribute to it. It seriously stretches the bounds of believability when the Emersons randomly meet Lucy’s fiancé Cecil in the National Gallery and he immediately suggests they move nearby (as a prank on somebody else), whilst all of them remain utterly unaware of their connection to Lucy.

Surrounded by caricatures and cartoons, however, Lucy stands out. It’s not love that leads Lucy to accept Cecil’s proposal but convention. He’s a good match, socially speaking, but her reaction is basically just ‘He’ll do.’ Lucy is no Lydia Bennet, however. Her conflicted feelings for George Emerson are not due to frivolous, flighty passions, but a serious consideration of what she really wants for herself, and her expanding determination to be the mistress of her own destiny.

The view in England isn’t really any worse than the one in Florence. It’s a rather transparent metaphor: the room is where you are – the view is the potential that exists outside that box.

Am I Normal Yet?

Buy AM I NORMAL YET? by Holly Bourne

A couple of years ago, Evie stopped eating, her weight plummeted and she ended up being sectioned. But she wasn’t anorexic. Her aversion to food wasn’t caused by anxiety about her weight, a dysmorphic perception of being fat. No, her worries were about bacteria, contamination, getting sick, vomiting – good old germophobic OCD.

Now, though, she’s got it under control (probably). High school, where she was the weirdest weirdo in the place, is over, and she’s got a second chance at college, where the only person who knows about her past is her best friend Jane. Jane’s now got into boys (or specifically Joel) so Evie is pretty much forced to make new friends.

None of Amber, Lottie, Guy or Oli know about her past, and Evie is determined to keep it that way, but the more she gets to know them, the more she comes to see she doesn’t hold the copyright on mental health problems, and the people who will be most and least understanding of them are not necessarily the ones she would expect.

This is really quite a fantastic novel about living with obsessive compulsive disorder. It is not a consciously worthy or earnest novel, and Holly Bourne has a perfectly judged light touch, deftly providing plenty to laugh about – rather than at. Even Evie recognises that her obsessions and compulsions are irrational, but intellectualising it doesn’t stop the pervasive worry.

But this is not just a condition-of-the-week sort of book. Her OCD interferes with her life, but Evie is still determined to live it. Pursuing normality forces her into all the normal situations where normal people run into normal problems, and whilst Evie’s anxieties do tend to get in the way, sometimes they might also give her a unique perspective on those normal problems (and those normal people, for that matter).

There’s also a funny subplot as Evie and her new (girl)friends struggle to reconcile their growing interest in boys with feminism, analysing their own conversations with each other for whether their lives would pass the Bechdel test. It seemed a bit of a self-referential joke to begin with, but it segues into the main plotline in a way that is unexpected before it happens, but from the other side seems obvious and, indeed, spot on.