Review: The Facts of Life by Patrick Gale

A composer who finds success in his later years surveys his grandchildren as they come to terms with the harsher facts of modern life. A young composer, Edward Pepper, is exiled from his native Germany by the war, struck down with TB, and left to languish in an isolation hospital. But then he falls in love with his doctor, Sally Banks, and his world is transformed. They set up home in a bizarre dodecahedral folly, The Roundel — a potent place, which grows in significance as it bears witness to their family’s tragedies and joys. The years pass, and Edward watches from this sanctuary as both his grandchildren, Jamie and Alison, fall prey to the charms of Sam, an enigmatic builder, and have to come to terms with some of the tougher facts of life.  

Review by Fiona Glass 

I’m not entirely sure this book qualifies as ‘gay historical’ since any gay content in the historical section is decidedly off-centre-stage, and by the time we get to the main gay character the book’s no longer historical!  But I thought it was worth doing a review, on the basis of a historical setting for the early section, and a couple of gay characters. 

I’m normally a big fan of Gale’s work.  His ‘Rough Music’ has made it onto my all-time favourite book list, so when I saw this book on the shelves of my local Oxfam bookshop, I grabbed it.  It’s a big thick volume, and tells the story of one family, through three generations of trials and tribulations, rather like a man’s take on Cynthia Harrod-Eagles. 

The book opens in the years just after World War Two.  The first characters we meet are Edward, an exiled German Jew, and Sally, a working class girl who’s made it to the rank of doctor by intelligence, hard work and sheer determination, at a time when such positions were usually held by men, or by women of a higher social class.  Both characters have a ‘surrogate parent’ in the form of someone who sponsored them through university, who they turn to in times of need, and both of whom are generous to a fault.  Sally’s sponsor retires to a nunnery and leaves them a strange little house in the wilds of the Norfolk Broads, which they fall in love with almost as much as they fall in love with each other.  They marry, move to the house and produce a family, who become the focus of later chapters of the book: their daughter Miriam, and their grandchildren Alison and Jamie, both of whom fall in love with the same man. 

Unfortunately the book has some major flaws.  The most obvious of these is that it’s told in third person omnipresent, which seriously detracts from getting to know the characters.  The focus shifts from Edward to Sally and back again seemingly at random, and we’re no sooner told that Sally is annoyed about something, than the focus flips to Edward, and doesn’t return to Sally until half way through the next chapter by which time the action has moved on by several months.  It’s very distancing and very frustrating, and it means that when the characters are presented with serious problems, you don’t feel you know them well enough to care. 

The second flaw is that unlike Harrod-Eagles, Gale has crammed all three generations into a single volume.  It’s already over 500 pages long but even so, telling the story of five different main characters in a book that ‘short’ means that inevitably a lot of the fine detail gets left out.  When Edward is faced with a terrible choice regarding the last surviving member of his family, his actions don’t ring true because we haven’t read enough about his inner battles, or his reasons for making the choice he does.  It’s almost as though Gale says “Oops, Edward decided to do this,” without any further explanation, or any fallout, and it’s too disconnected to make any real sense. 

I would have liked the book to be split into at least two, perhaps three volumes.  I think Edward’s story alone would have been interesting enough to carry the first volume – there aren’t many books written about the Jews who fled to England just before the War, leaving so many family members and friends behind, and his relationship with his ‘father-figure’ Thomas, who is clearly a homosexual and clearly in love with him, could have been developed hugely.  Why wasn’t Thomas jealous when Edward decided to marry Sally?  Why didn’t he try to persuade Sally not to marry Edward, or at the very least make a few not-very-well-hidden passes at the younger man?  Too often Gale doesn’t include nearly enough tension, and the tension he does introduce is often not very well used. 

Sally’s character too could have been so much better developed.  I’m assuming Gale did his research; it must have been very unusual for a working class girl to become a doctor in those days and the story of her struggle to be accepted for what she was would have been fascinating.  As it is, we get a few snippets where male colleagues patronise her, and a few scenes where the rest of her family disapprove, and that’s about it. 

In the end I lost interest in the younger generations and the book is still sitting, half-read, on my bedside table.  My overall impression is one of huge frustration at a valuable story wasted.  Such a shame for an author who’s produced some wonderful books. 

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6 Responses

  1. I utterly and entirely agree with this – I think it’s a failed book and Sam is the most irritating character around. Apart from Jamie. I think Gale should have concentrated purely on the historical sections and made those into a full novel by themselves – then it would have been fine. Forget the grandchildren thing – they’re dreadful.

    This is often the case with Gale I have to say – one fab book followed by a groaner! Mind you, maybe things are improving as his last two have been wonderful!

    :))

    A
    xxx

  2. Rough Music is my only experience of Patrick Gale so I can’t comment on his other work. However, like you, RM made it onto my bookshelf as a keeper. I want to try more of this author’s work based on that book alone but even as you began this review with the synopsis of the plot, my mind was already jumping to questions that you then addressed in the review. The moment you said a working-class girl having made it to the rank of doctor by intelligence etc., I felt that undeniable jolt of disbelief and questioning. Has the author done the research was my initial thought and then when you go on to describe the omnipresent style, it began to sound even less promising. It sounds too close to head-hopping to me, and it’s something I can seldom abide. Still, on the face of what I know of Patrick Gale, I would advise readers to give his work a try.

  3. Interesting – thanks both! He’s an author that I would suggest trying from the library first, because his work is so patchy. It’s almost as though he has a split personality!

  4. [...] This review first appeared at Speak Its Name. [...]

  5. I think you’ve all missed the point of this book, which is to do with feelings both conscious and unconscious. I liked the fact that not everything is told about the characters. Patrick Gale has a terrific talent for letting the reader become part of the story and so fill in the gaps through ones’ own experience. I don’t want to be told everything about a character as though the story is a recipe. I want to be involved and included, not an observer. Patrick Gale consistently offers this.

  6. Having just finished this book, I have to agree with Fiona, it either needs to be a lot shorter and sharper or three times the length. Everything is glossed over, skipped, no depth, or we hear about from someone else, or we don’t really hear about it at all. There’s a lot of telling and little showing, because when we do see someone having emotions, it’s from someone else’s point of view e.g. when Sam is told that Jamie has died, he goes into the bedroom and Alison goes and makes tea or something – there’s nothing there. It’s just a jolly tale of these poor rich middle class people who get a bit unnerved when something unpleasant happens to them.

    Thomas – for example, is completely excised from the story other than a quick mention by Miram almost towards the end when she accuses her father of homophobia – it really felt forced and “oh god I haven’t mentioned Thomas” and pasted on.

    The tropes 1. gay guy has to do die (all of them) 2. gay’s partner isn’t gay of course, and seeks heterosexual sex and heals them all with the power of his lower class-ness and his sperm are really too tired to be funny.

    And I really don’t get the whole movie star thing – really – i must have missed something there. Agree with ann, failed book.

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