In seven short stories, residents of a London boardinghouse reach moments of clarity.
On London Road, lined with scruffy shops, stands No. 17, a detached redbrick Victorian that’s been turned into a boardinghouse. Its residents tend toward hard luck and desperation: Janice is just out of prison; Mandy is on probation; Bitty has a good education but is scarred by her mother’s frequent abandonments; and Isobel is mentally unstable. Nora, the landlady, writes romance novels but has experienced little romance herself, and her daughter, Anna, is disgusted by Isobel’s outbursts. Their interconnected stories take place on a day of unusually hot weather and focus on one resident at a time, with Janice’s story told in two parts. In each, characters have a chance to make a leap of faith in other people or in the future. In “The Walls of Buckingham Palace,” for example, Nora—who adores the queen—reflects on an uneasy encounter with Len, her local pub’s new landlord, who drank too much and frightened her off: “But every night since, her sleep had been disturbed by longings she thought had long since [been] vanquished.” It takes queenlike courage for her to return to the pub, where she finds that Len is apologetic, sincere, and kind. Pointing to a framed photograph of the queen, he remarks, “You remind me of her, you do”; nothing, of course, could better gain her trust and win her over. Though spare and fast-paced, McGovern’s (Cocktails for Book Lovers, 2014, etc.) tales evoke entire biographies. She focuses on illuminative details and subtle, turning-point moments, as when Mandy, a young woman on probation, reacts to her mandatory book group’s reading of Katherine Mansfield’s 1922 short story “The Garden Party.” It stokes her resentment, as she doesn’t even know if people still give garden parties. Mandy makes plans to shoplift again, but something about the book group leader’s hopefulness and the invitation to give her honest opinion sparks her determination to win—maybe a literary argument or maybe more chocolate wafers.
Tales with subtle, positive,
but never saccharine transformations that feel fully earned.