Oxford-educated Charlotte Mendelson is one of our Best British Authors. Her novels to date - Love in Idleness, Daughters of Jerusalem and When We Were Bad - were all released to prizes and popular acclaim. Her latest, Almost English, has already been long-listed for the Booker and shortlisted for the Orange. It sounded so promising that I did the unconscionable and bought it brand-new for my Kindle before its paperback release.
That, regrettably, was where it all became a bit familiar and the excitement began to peter out. Mendelson specializes in a certain type of British character: in Love in Idleness, a naive university student fantasises her way into sexually confused neuroticism; in Daughters of Jerusalem, Mendelson evoked the stifling lives of academically elite girls and their emotionally unfulfilled parents - a thinly veiled portrait of Oxford, her hometown, and its league-table-topping High School; in When We Were Bad, her funniest novel, an extended Jewish family contend with family secrets and surprising longings; and in Almost English, we see the return of the Neurotic Teen and the equally emotionally challenged Mother. Except, by now, it's slightly irritating.
Marina is a shy half-Hungarian sixth-former, the unfortunate subject of her immigrant grandparents' ambition. She begins the school year at a mid-ranked co-ed boarding school. To remedy her total lack of, ahem, experience, she embarks on an awkward relationship with a younger boy who turns out to be the son of a famous TV historian, Alexander Viney. Meanwhile her mother Laura bunks on the floor of her Hungarian ex-in-laws' cramped London flat, desperately missing her daughter and mourning her dull adulthood. Then the ex turns up. And some kind of half-baked family secret emerges connecting the Hungarians with the smooth TV historians.
That, sadly, is basically all there is to Almost English. It's well-written, and there's some astute social observation (the upper-class Vineys are spot-on), but it’s a bit too template – and suffers from spineless protagonists. While Mendelson has previously created sympathetic characters muddling along in thick, atmospheric, timeless problems, I found myself increasingly annoyed with Laura and Marina. Their inability to finish a sentence in dialogue, unrelenting awkwardness in social situations, and general floundering in the face of - well - life, smacked not of poignant caught-in-two-worlds coming-of-age swansong for mediocrity, but of slightly dull filler, enlivened by a bit of exotic Eastern European context.
The latter certainly sells books these days (see Marina Lewycka), but Almost English needed more original main characters for its occasional glimmer of humour to carry any weight. One hopes that Mendelson has something a bit better up her sleeve for novel number five, and her previous books lead me to think that she'll soon be back on form - hopefully with all-male characters, set in a supermarket in Grimsby, a commune in Sloane Square, or an ashram in Norway. That would be a Booker dead cert.