344pp, paperback, £11.99
Reviewed by Elsbeth Lindner
Does middle-age mean that women grow out of self-criticism and start to have faith in themselves? Not necessarily, according to Susie Nott-Bower’s debut, whose twin heroines Clara and Jo, friends of some thirty years’ standing since meeting at the Davina Lucas Secretarial School, are still seeking their better selves and the freedom likely to accompany them at age fifty.
Solo business woman Clara is beset not only by the menopause but the competitive pressure of younger, better-connected colleagues snapping at her heels in television production company ProDoCo where Clara produces documentaries with a feminist edge – or used to. Now, threatened by financial pressures, her pushy assistant Alix and a new boss, Clara has no choice but to agree to a crowd-pleasing makeover show featuring some poor plain victim of a woman and a vulpine plastic surgeon.
As for Jo, the neglected wife and unacknowledged editor/amanuensis of successful playwright Iain Coe, she too has been pushed aside for a younger model as Iain moves out to be with his publicist, leaving Jo to discover that she has no identity, either professional or private.
The confluence of these two plot strands isn’t hard to predict yet Nott-Bower turns some tables as Jo undergoes the makeover, emerging externally perfected but in fact more safely and privately contained within. Then she meets someone whose interest in her has nothing whatsoever to do with her looks.
Readers old enough to remember Barbara Raskin’s ground-breaking 1987 novel Hot Flashes will take comfort in a story that focuses not on thirty-somethings but the travails, physical and emotional, of fifty-year-old women. While Nott-Bower’s characterization can tend towards the broadly-delineated and the younger women, with their ‘sharp vixen faces’, are often presented as a threat, there’s nevertheless a sympathetic determination to the novel’s focus and some graceful, often insightful observation. The book’s combination of commitment and readability are reminiscent of Elizabeth Buchan or Anna Quindlen.
Jo, with her new face and body, eventually finds ways to move forward that both ignore and include her redefined self while Clara avoids the scalpel but undergoes her own, painful process of redefinition.
The Making of Her marks the debut of a writer engaged, like Clara, in creating popular material with a feminist edge. Even if it turns out that her first book is not the making of Susie Nott-Bower, this is undoubtedly a pleasing and compelling step in the right direction.