Today we're welcoming back Hetty for another review for the Indie Book Network. My Husband Simon by Mollie Panter-Downes is one of the first titles to be published in the British Library's Women Writers series, and we'll have a review of another book in the series coming up very soon on the blog.
My Husband Simon opens by establishing its central conundrum. The protagonist, Nevis Falconer, reflects: “I sometimes wonder, looking back at everything…whether I would make up my mind quite so precipitously to marry Simon Quinn if I met him for the first time to-day.” When Nevis, a culturally refined novelist, falls head-over-heels for marketing man Simon, she decides to marry him immediately. Their marriage is then sustained by the strong mutual attraction between them and the fact they have a good time together (when they are not quarrelling). It is giddying to read along as Nevis falls 'precipitously' into a heady, chaotic relationship with Simon. Framed by their attraction to each other, both Simon and Nevis come across as appealing in their own way. Straightforward Simon is described as being “as simple and direct as […] a man squatting on his bare heels and rubbing two stones together to make fire”, while Nevis’s bohemian, writerly existence and love of city life cast her as a romantic.
Set in the 1930s, the My Husband Simon charts Nevis’s struggles with running a household, and her shifting feelings of adoration and infuriation directed at her husband. A visit from Nevis's American publisher, Marcus Chard, adds to the tension, as he offers Nevis access to an intellectual world Simon cannot engage with. While Nevis tries to work out what she wants from life, the reader gets to indulge in the glamour of her existence. It is fun to read about Nevis and Simon mingling at friends’ parties, disappearing to the country for weekends away, and dancing in jazz clubs before heading home across London in the early hours. The period details – Nevis drinking Tom Collins-es and putting on cold cream before bed – are delightful.
My Husband Simon is an easy, compelling read with beautiful turns of phrase. All of the people and places in the book are carefully depicted, though the author, Mollie Panter-Downes, seems to have reserved special affection and attention for London. The descriptions of Hyde Park in a heatwave are an evocative example of this (Nevis sits by the Serpentine, noting how “the trees on the other side looked unreal and a little distorted as though a sheet of glass were stretched between me and them. Even the pavements seemed to sweat”). By the end of the book, the season has changed and London is in a “keen autumn swell". This shift towards coolness is reflected in Nevis’s marriage as well. Nevis knows if she stays with Simon, she will be assimilated into his family and will have to have children. Here, the book gets a little heavy, as Nevis is pressed on the point of deciding whether she wants to go on with life as it is or whether she wants to uproot herself.
It is easy to empathise with Nevis, both in her happiness and her struggles, and it is good to find a book that shows what marriage was like for women at the time. My Husband Simon is part of the British Library's Women Writers series, published with the aim of bringing to light forgotten stories and fiction from the library's archive. It is a carefully curated offering, with useful additional materials that help the reader get to grips with the period in which the text is set. The afterword is especially useful, as it highlights the subtle but significant class distinctions that drive a wedge between Nevis and Simon. Both this and the other titles in the series – Dangerous Ages, Chatterton Square – are worth picking up, as instances of excellent but overlooked writing from authors spanning the early twentieth century.
Hetty is an English graduate working in publishing. She has previously been shortlisted in the WritersHQ Flash Fiction competition. When not writing, she enjoys wild swimming and exploring new places. Twitter @hetty__m
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