Last week, when I needed a literary pick-me-up, I turned to my Virago bookcase and I pulled out a little book by Olivia Manning.
It looked very promising: a coming of age story set in an English seaside town in the swinging sixties.
Laura was fifteen, and she dreamed of leaving home for the bright lights of London. She wanted to leave her dull, lower middle class family behind. Her strict mother, her unassuming father, her irksome younger brother.
But that was in the future. What she wanted right now was to be friends with Vicky Logan. She was lovely, the cherished daughter of liberal, well to do parents, and she had once shown Laura a small kindness that Laura had never forgotten.
It felt a little predictable, a little stereotypical, but the two girls offered an interesting study in contrasts.
Vicky had every advantage, but she lacked a certain spark and had no interest in the world outside her hometown; Laura had fewer advantages, but she was bright and she was ready to fly.
So who really had most advantages?
Laura’s mother accepted an invitation for her children to spend the Easter holidays with an old acquaintance on the Isle of Wight. It had been one of those invitations made out of politeness with no expectation of it ever being accepted. And so Laura and her brother, Tom, found themselves with bed and board, but otherwise left to their own devices.
On one fateful day Laura and Tom stumbled into a private estate. They didn’t mean to trespass, but the incoming tide had caught them unawares. The strange ‘Mrs Toplady’ invites them into ‘her’ home and shows them the play room, full of naked, anatomically correct adult dolls, twisted into suggestive poses. Laura and Tom run.
It was strange, and nicely under-explained, but it didn’t quite work.
Because it came out of nowhere, and because there were no consequences.
But it gave Laura a wonderful story that would draw her into Vicky’s circle.
Vicky, much more sophisticated than Laura, understands more about the play room than Laura, and she is intrigued.
Laura falls into the role of best friend when Vicky’s friend Gilda is away on an extended family holiday. The pair go to parish dances, and then to more grown up dances with workers from the local factory.
Laura is captivated by the atmosphere and the music, and Vicky is captivated by a rough factory worker. She is out of her depth, as manipulated as one of the dolls in the play room, and the summer will not end happily.
The story was compelling, there were some nice moments, but I am afraid that this book just did not work.
So much of the dialogue, so many of the things that happened, just didn’t quite ring true.
And I was left wondering what Patricia Highsmith or Barbara Vine would have made of ‘Mrs Toplady’; there was, I think, the potential for a more interesting story in this material.
Olivia Manning is the author of many wonderful novels, and I am disappointed to have to say that ‘The Play Room’ is not one of them.