The doomed mutual attraction of a middle-aged widow and her new son-in-law, who is much closer to her own age than her daughter’s, forms the central drama in this social comedy with tragic overtones.
Joanna Malling lost her husband in the first year of their marriage. At the age of 21 she was left with a baby daughter to raise alone. Now twenty years later, Libby is herself a grown woman living in London, and Joanna buys a new home to begin the next stage of her life. But her solitary existence is about to be shattered when Libby announces she is engaged. And with a change of job for her new husband Steven, the newly married couple move in with Joanna. What starts as an uneasy relationship between Joanna and Steven develops into something much more intimate and reminds Joanna of all she has missed out on. With Libby growing suspicious, Joanna must make a heart-rending decision.
The author: Diana Tutton (1915–1991) was a British writer whose novels focused on taboo relationships and family dysfunctionality. In the Second World War she drove a WVS mobile canteen, before she followed her husband to Kenya and joined the FANYs. In 1948 the family moved to British Malaya where she wrote her three novels. Mamma was published in 1956.
My thoughts: I have enjoyed discovering new-to-me women writers through this British Library project (I also really like their Classic Crime series too) so was delighted to be asked to review Mamma.
You might think that the 1950s were very staid and writers never covered anything eyebrow raising or taboo, but you’d be wrong. Diana Tutton is proof of that. Her books were about some very shocking subjects, including incest, and this one is about a doomed and never acted upon romance between a woman and her daughter’s new husband.
Joanna is only 5 years older than Steven and resents the idea that she should just fade into widowhood, she’s not even comfortable with the idea that her daughter is old enough to get married at 20. Her frustrations about the roles society boxes women into are genuine and haven’t hugely changed since the 50s – Maiden, Mother, Crone is a trope from the Ancient World that persists.
This makes her see Steven, 15 years older than Libby, differently. She isn’t initially very keen on him and worries about the age gap between him and her daughter, the life experiences are so different. But Libby insists it doesn’t matter. And it isn’t until circumstances force them into sharing Joanna’s house that she realises her indifference is really something more.
I found this compelling and utterly fascinating, both for what it has to say about women and also the plot, which is slow burn and sneaks up on you. What seems like a gentle domestic tale is much more, but not apparent on first glance. I felt for Joanna, for the way she’s forced into roles and made to act like a woman much older, when at 41 she’s still fairly young and if she were around now would be seen quite differently.
*I was kindly gifted a copy of this book in exchange for taking part in the blog tour but all opinions remain my own.