I’m a big fan of Sandi Toksvig on the TV, as was Mum. She is fast and funny, with a wicked sense of humour, and last year did a marvellous job becoming one of the new hosts of Bake Off after Mary Berry’s departure. This is the first of her books that I have read, and I did enjoy it, chuckling aloud occasionally, but it wasn’t long before I began to wonder if an American reader would find her frequent swipes at their culture and way of life quite as entertaining!
In short, Ms Toksvig spent what she later came to believe was the best year of her youth attending a high school in America and becoming a member of the drama group there. That years play was ‘The Skin of Our Teeth’ by Thornton Wilder, and, enraptured by the charismatic drama teacher, she auditioned for and gained a part as the youngest of the three incarnations of Gladys Antrobus. The other two Gladys’ and she formed a club, The Gladyses, which eventually expanded to a group of twelve friends. (I feel as if I have typed ‘Gladys’ far too many times already, and trust that no one reading this is now at a loss as to the significance of the title of the book? No? Good!)
That year, the year of the Gladyses, and her subsequent removal to an English boarding school are not the main focus of this book however. It’s more a conversation about Ms Toksvig’s personal struggles, whether she made the right choices in relationships, career, location; whether she should apply for a British passport even though she has lived in the UK for thirty years on her Danish one, mainly because despite being a politically aware individual, she cannot vote. It’s about how she views America, coming to it again after many years and with a roseate view engendered by her reminiscences of that golden high school year. And it’s about organising to meet up with the other eleven Gladyses. And whether they are as plump as her – we read a fair bit about her tummy!
The opening is really quite hilarious as Ms Toksvig tries her hand at rodeo-ing in Arizona, which ends rather badly, and she maintains a light, easy pace throughout – it is not a hard book to read at all. One by one, across a series of visits to the USA, she does manage to catch up with the Gladyses; some are as plump as her, others are not. Most are suburban wives who refuse to discuss international affairs and thus gain Ms Toksvig’s scorn at the insular nature of Americans. During the course of the book, the terrible event of 9/11 happens, and Ms Toksvig finds herself in New York very shortly after, with the smell of the burning buildings still thick in the air. She describes what and who she sees, the general atmosphere, in a sensitive and moving way, but then complains that the Red Cross Disaster Relief centre has no toilets.
The book becomes Bill Bryson-esque at times, there are nicely written descriptions of visits to strange attractions, meandering drives, and some history and geography thrown in to boot. And by the time she is flying home to England, Ms Toksvig has decided that England is indeed home, and she’ll get the passport, apparently mostly due to the terribly British humour of the pilot of her plane.
Mum hasn’t initialled and dated the flyleaf of this book although I know she read it, and I wonder if it’s because she felt lukewarm about it in the same way I do. Yes, it’s funny, easy to read, interesting in some ways. But my over-riding impression is that most of the Gladyses probably won’t want another reunion after what she has to say about them and their lives, and that reading this has not spurred me to look for more of her books, although I look forward to her presenting this summer’s Great British Bake Off!
So. Not a big thumbs up from me on this one, but if you would like to read it yourself, please let me know where to send it to and it will become yours!
POST SCRIPTUM; Thoughts while in the shower. I find a long hot shower so conducive to thinking.
Our lovely Ma was also in New York a very short time after the Twin Towers attack, with my stepfather Brian to visit Brian’s brother, and she too found it deeply moving. Mum loved America, which she visited several times, never failing to marvel at the size of everything – dinners and domestic appliances in particular. She was tremendously impressed by the white goods! I also had one of the most fabulous holidays of my life when I took a solo road trip across the South from San Diego to Savannah in 2012, in a Toyota Yaris of all things. We both agreed that Americans in general were so friendly and polite and pleasant, not to mention the generally awesomely spectacular landscapes; and the reflection I had in my shower was that while it is extremely easy to poke fun at a population that has managed to elect an orange misogynist muppet to the White House, is it nice to do so?
This is the land that gave us Henry James and Steinbeck, Donna Tartt and Arthur Miller. I have only to think of the way Bill Bryson writes about Britain to recognise that Americans think we are weird too. Many years ago, I emigrated from the UK to Australia, and before I left, I was told to remember that although they speak the same language, it is a different, foreign country. The same applies to the USA, and I think my main issue with this book and possibly Mum’s also is that the poking fun is a little too pointed at times, it’s not kind. And above all else, Mum was unfailingly kind.