New York Times publishing correspondent Lyall, based in London and married to a Brit, takes some gentle, fond pokes at our trans-Atlantic brethren.
Though raised in New York, the author has lived in London since the mid-’90s, and speaks from experience about what makes the British tick. The stereotypes are difficult to get past, she admits, since they frequently ring true: The English are more reserved and repressed than Americans, for example. In chapters chock-full of anecdotes and friends’ stories, Lyall gets to the roots of why this might be. (The woeful state of sex education, especially at all-male boarding schools, might have something to do with it, or that “bastion of unreconstructed maleness,” the House of Commons.) The author also looks at newspaper readers’ love-hate relationship with those lurid tabloids, the British penchant for binge drinking, the bewildering game of cricket and very bad teeth. Their horror of public display translates into a “making-do” mentality in many older Brits, including aristocrats, who prefer the threadbare to the new, the old decayed mouth to a new Americanized veneer. The English, Lyall finds, talk themselves down so that they appear resilient and intrepid in the face of hardship; this might be residue from World War II. “Britons emphasize their faults in part as a way to demonstrate the charm of their self-deprecation,” she notes, offering a smattering of lonely-hearts ads by way of example. Following the rise of new wealth and more open materialism in the late ’90s, England has undergone a revolution in the service industry, to uneven effect in such areas as the heating of rooms. Observations on English weather, class and accents are nothing new, of course, and Lyall cites numerous writers who have mined the field, including George Orwell, Bill Bryson and Julian Barnes. Her generous take on her adopted compatriots can sit without embarrassment next to their volumes on the shelf.
Fresh, funny and occasionally wicked.