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Merseyside - An Awfully Big Adventure by Beryl Bainbridge

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An Awfully Big Adventure by Beryl Bainbridge
It is 1950 and the Liverpool reporatory theatre company is rehearsing its Christmas production of Peter Pan, a story of childhood innocence and loss. Stella has been taken on as assistant stage manager and quickly becomes obsessed with Meredith, the dissolute director. But it is only when the celebrated O'Hara arrives to take the lead, that a different drama unfolds. In it, he and Stella are bound together in a past that neither dares to interpret.
Other Merseyside books:
Educating Rita by Willy Russell (play)

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Not sure if I need to put spoilers in tags - are we assuming anyone reading this thread has read the book? Have put them in tags for now anyway.


As an English Counties Challenge book, I did also feel this book could have been set in any working class area post-war, not necessarily Merseyside. 





Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear. 


I would have long since abandoned this book were it not for the Counties Challenge. It took me 5 long days to get through, despite being a mere 198 pages long, and I can find little to redeem it. 


Until O'Hara arrives (well over halfway in!), there is little to tempt the reader in terms of plot. The writing style rather overeggs the pudding at times with the descriptions, and it's difficult to see where exactly the story is going. 


We are introduced to Stella, a 16-year-old girl living with her aunt and uncle in working class post-war Liverpool. Concerned her only career choice is Woolworths, her Uncle Vernon gets her a place at the local theatre. 


She becomes infatuated with the director, Meredith, which is evidently a doomed love from the beginning. Then come endless descriptions of rehearsals and performances with little indication of any significance to a paper thin plot. 


Stella is a difficult character, which makes her difficult to root for at certain points in the story, and the supporting cast are rather vacuous individuals. 


The story does improve marginally towards the end, but it's too little, too late for me I'm afraid. 





And the revelation that O'Hara, who she has been sleeping with, is her father becomes obvious before the reveal, which means having to read about the sex leaves rather a nasty taste in the mouth.




Still, two positives. 


a) One more book completed for English Counties Challenge

b) I took it out of the library, so at least didn't waste any money on it!


I think this may be the first time ever I have stuck with a book that merits just a single mark, but records are there to be broken as they do say. 



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Oh dear, Alex!  :giggle:  I take it you won't be rushing to read any more of her books?! 


I'm not going to reread this for my challenge - I'm going to find something else as I don't want to read it again.   I gave it (the equivalent of, as I marked out of 10 in 2009) 3/5.


Here is my review at the time...


It took me a while to get into this book - I found it to be quite slow at first but it builds gradually and gets much better towards the end!


What the author does really well is to convey the feel of the time in which it is set.  I really felt as though I was watching the scenes take place in the austere, post-war 1950s - that feeling of drabness but also of change.


Stella is a naïve and somewhat disturbed individual who is on a voyage of self-discovery. 

She thinks she’s in love with Meredith but he is indifferent to her and eventually she forms a relationship with the much older O’Hara.  It’s difficult to see whether he’s taking advantage of Stella or whether it is she who is taking advantage of him.



We don’t really know a lot about Stella’s past.  She lives with her Uncle Vernon and Aunt Lily in a run-down guest house.  Although her relationship with them doesn’t seem quite ‘normal’, it is clear that they care for her a great deal.  Stella’s mysterious mother is mentioned only once or twice by Vernon and Lily, and although Stella talks to her by telephone, we never hear what her mother has to say - it’s only ever “Mother said the usual things”.


The ending of the book is really quite sad.  There was a twist that I didn’t see coming -

I didn’t realise mother was going to be the speaking clock - even though it was mentioned that she’d “won the competition” and thought that was such a clever idea, and that it was also so pitiful that Stella would ring it just to hear her mother’s voice and to be able to talk to her. 


I wondered if O’Hara was going to have something to do with Stella’s mother, but I didn’t think he’d turn out to be Stella’s father!



Regarding my spoiler above, Alex...



I don't remember the incest incest storyline, but reading my review I  guess it didn't bother me at the time like it did you, Alex (I suppose I should be a bit embarrassed...!) - Did O'Hara know Stella was his daughter when he was sleeping with her?  Not that it makes it right, but it would at least make O'Hara less to blame - if he knew she was his daughter and still had sex with her then I wonder why I didn't mention that fact because I'd have thought it would have disgusted me too...?



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J - answer to your question in the spoiler below in further spoiler tags! 



No, as soon as he realises he is Stella's father and he has been sleeping with her he goes and throws himself off a bridge. I didn't blame the character exactly, but I did see the father thing coming so I probably found it more abhorrent because I strongly suspected while reading about the sex? 


I think it would have bothered me less if I hadn't realised until the end?



I also like the twist about her Mother - that was my favourite bit of the story and that bit I definitely did not see coming :)


ETA: I find that 6/10 sounds worse than 3/5! I don't know if its because 6/10 at school as bang average, whereas 3/5 I rate as a book I enjoyed?

Edited by Alexi

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Thanks - I'd forgotten that!


I agree with what you say about the scoring.   I wouldn't rate it as a 3/5 using my current scoring system - it was more like a 2/5. 

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An Awfully Big Adventure by Beryl Bainbridge *****


(Note: this review has been copied to both my own reading blog and to my English County Challenge thread).


At barely 200 pages, there is not a lot of volume involved here, but by the end, I felt as if I'd read a lot, lot more. Bainbridge's writing is characteristically taut and lean, and this is no exception. Initially, that can be a little disconcerting, as she plunges the reader straight in without any real introduction, leaving the reader floundering somewhat in her wake, but as the characters become more clearly defined, and the narrative falls into place, the process feels so much more akin to how one breaks into an already settled group, which is what the lead character, 16-year old Stella has to do as she leaves school in a bare four sentences and takes her first steps in a somewhat seedy world of 1950s repertory theatre.


Inevitably, in such a closed environment, relationships are mixed, undercurrents abound, and the story brews up deftly to a genuinely dramatic denouement. Yes, you can see some of it coming, perhaps all of it if you pick up on all the clues (and they are there - Bainbridge is like a top notch crime writer in this regard), but even then, there is something eminently satisfying and rewarding in watching all the pieces fall into place with such precision.


What I enjoyed most though was the author's drawing of her characters: so much detail, yet so few words. This is common to all those books of hers that I've read, but here, perhaps because of her ability to draw on her personal experience of rep, she is perhaps even sharper than the norm. She always tells a good story too, but on occasions in the past I've reached the end wondering what it was all meant to be about. There's no doubting that here, and as a result the beautifully constructed plotting and characterisation have combined to create a real gem.


Edit for this thread:

Which is all a rather (!) different viewpoint to those of Alex and Janet above! I have to say that I disagree with them on almost every point (although I agree with Janet about the 1950s evocation!): for me the first part of the book was vital to establish the characters and their relationships, and in the build up to what follows. And for me the plot was anything but paper thin! But then my enjoyment of it is more than amply demonstrated by the contrast between Alex's timescales and mine: I started at just after 6 last night, and finished around 10 this morning.

Which all probably makes it a great book for a reading group. I look forward to what others think in the future!

Edited by willoyd

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I quite enjoyed this one, but I don't have much to say.  I liked the writing style, and I thought it had the period just right.  I loved the whole world of the theatre she created, and the characters who formed part of the story, and it was nice to have a book set in Liverpool for a change, as I don't think I can remember reading a book set there before.  It didn't blow me away, and it's far from my favourite of the challenge, but I enjoyed it much more than I'd been anticipating.  I liked the whole matter of fact way she wrote about their lives, and the sense of melancholy that hangs over the whole story.


I know I saw the film adaptation (with Alan Rickman and Hugh Grant) at the cinema when it came out in the 1990s, but I couldn't remember a single thing about it, so the story came as a surprise and I might go back and watch it again at some point.

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