Synopsis: From the author - Oxford: A place where liaisons are made and hearts are broken. There's Dinah and her second husband Piers, happily married for 15 years, or are they? Then there's Dinah's son Kit, involved with Poppy, whose husband only realizes he loves her when it's too late...
Review: After reading a number of longish stories, it was nice to get back to a short story style, and in the case of Oxford Marmalade, we have several short stories to sample on.
From the cover, it's virtually impossible to tell what is contained within its pages, but from page one, we can understand the author's extremely creative approach to writing. The beauty of this book is that it's possible to read one story, feel you have completed something and understood it, before going about your usual routine.
However, in many cases the stories are linked through the characters and it is here that I think Oxford Marmalade elevates itself from a potential nice and okay set of stories, to something far greater.
There are eight tales in all, good value for a short collection of stories, and predictably opens up with the title story. Focussing on a rather strange marriage (not that there are many normal marriages!) where husband and wife have grown apart after fifteen years together, instead of strengthening the bond that living together, winning and losing battles together, looking out for each other, should duly involve.
Piers is a man with certain standards, likes things 'just so' and his wife Dinah needs to go along with it. Not that Piers is a control freak - he just appears like someone best not to mess with his order of the universe.
He seems the polar opposite of Dinah's first husband, an American she was with for seven glorious and wild years. Seven wild years that produced one son, called Kit.
The marriage with oh-so-British Piers seems to have become a bit too sedate for Dinah. He would begin by saying things like (paraphrased) 'pass the marmalade, old thing...'
Truly, I can see where Dinah's coming from. I may be older than some people, but certainly younger than others. Once Piers refers to his wife like this, he's saying 'Oh, you're comfortable for me...I can say things like this to you and they really are terms of endearment. You're not really an old thing. Now pass me my super special marmalade.'
How about drowning Saville Row suit-wearing Piers in the stuff?
His snobbish ways are the opposite of Kit's slow drawled father. Perhaps Dinah was missing him, and we are perhaps all guilty on occasion of thinking of our former loves, no matter how well our current relationship is going.
Dinah's problem with Piers, if it could be confined to just one, was that he was a throwback to another time, perhaps one that exists in his mind only. He would be pleasant without being exciting, promoting a facade of decency rather than being true to himself.
That said, I could understand Piers' revulsion when Dinah would speak with ex-husband Hubbard. It seemed that time - or the predictable marriage in which she now found herself had tempered her feelings somewhat. During phone conversations, the Dinah that Piers expected her to be was rather different with her ex.
The battle that became a war of two losers, ultimately became resolved by time and other factors. Could I see Piers and Dinah - post THIS marriage, acting in this way? I'm not sure I could.
There's all sorts of fascinating angles at play here. Normally, marriage stories would be a no-no for me. Coronation Street, EastEnders and so on are a permanent non-fixture in my home, because there is only so many times you can recycle a story. You know where it's going before it has ended. There is no surprise, no wonder, one dimensional characters that you basically would not care to have living anywhere near you.
Kit is a reminder of what Dinah once had, and Piers naturally has a rocky relationship with him because of it.
Through later stories, we understand Kit's seething hatred for Piers, but 'good old chap' Piers doesn't bite the bait, even in one of my favourite scenes in the entire book.
So why should you read this book? Well, Oxford Marmalade is a collection of stories that are cleverly written, often with a prose that made me feel a lot more educated as a result. Sometimes I read books and feel like I have lost brain cells in the battle to care about the characters the author created to light up the page.
Oxford Marmalade has an impressive cast of characters that all have their own motivations. The reveals are something you will see coming, or you won't. That's the author's power - Miss Hayes gives you a set of believable circumstances (especially in the collection's second tale, Under the Circumstances), that makes you believe everything is Piers-like...in other words, just so.
It's hard for me to categorise this book. Suffice to say, this is a different, engaging, brilliantly written tale (or tales, but you will see the link between them all) of people at different stages of their lives. Different stages, wants, desires, ambitions, and needs.
Some of the lines, depending on where you are in your life, really do hit home with amazing clarity. It's so great when an author can do this, but as I said, her ability is obvious from page one.
"You don't like Americans on principle....you've never forgiven them because one got to screw my mother before you, and turned her into a package deal that included me."
"The beast with two backs." (I've kept that very short...if you know what it means, great...if not, you really do need to read this collection!).
"He turned from prince to frog and croaked his slimy way back through the forest into the bloodied heart of the dying sunset."
Poetic, written with authority, and always engaging, Oxford Marmalade should not just be on your to-read list, it should be on your to-read-TODAY- list.