The Square: Rosie Milliard

“If you just drove in and out of the Square all day to deliver your child to The Prep, which is ferociously exclusive and expensive, you would feel as if life was a sort of planet of plenty, thinks Tracey, who knows full well from her clients who buy cosmetics from her that it is not.”

The Square, a novel from Rosie Millard is a satire which lampoons the lifestyles and values of a handful of residents of a neighbourhood of expensive London Georgian mansions that were “built for the Victorian bourgeoisie, fallen into disrepair, divided up, broken down, reunited, refurbished, [now] they are serving descendants of their original class once more.” Everyone who lives in the Square is proud of their address, as if living there is some sort of achievement. Most of the characters’ primary concern is appearances, so in this delightfully malicious look at class and materialism, we see characters who think they’re unique when in actuality, they are ultra conformists who have “knock-through kitchens,’ send their children to the same schools, compete with ridiculous dinner parties, and show off designer labels as if they were medals.

All those women with husbands who work in the City, dressed in their silk shifts and tweedy jackets, makeup so subtle it looks like it’s not even there, hair beautifully blown. It is the handbags which are the signifiers, though. Soft, buttery leather bags. Purple and green and black, with clinking accoutrements to announce their presence; silver locks and heart-shaped key fobs and gilt chains, and huge stitched handles which fit just so under your arm.

The residents/characters in the book include:

  • Tracey and Larry: who won the lottery but find that maintaining the lifestyle expected of residents of the square is beyond their means. They have two children–Belle and Grace and an au pair, Anya. Belle is old enough to remember her working class, pre-lottery days.
  • Jane and Patrick: Patrick “who has gone to seed,” brings home the big money while mega bitch Jane, known to her husband as “Der Führer,”  brings home her lover, Jay for frantic afternoon trysts. Their only child George is the most mature person in the household.
  • Harriet and Jay: overweight and unhappy Harriet doesn’t fit in with the other ultra slim wives, and Jay busies himself with an affair with ultra-skinny Jane.
  • Pretentious, obnoxious artist Philip Burrell and his nutty Russian wife Gilda who dresses like she “just stepped out of theatrical clothing emporium, or is trying to represent a painting by Watteau.” Philip hires a young man from the local council estate to build his pricey works of art: reproductions of golf holes which sell for up to 50,000 pounds a pop.

The novel follows the various complications in the lives of the characters and culminates in the residents’ fundraising talent show (the council refuses to pay for new iron railings. Sob…). We see Tracey, with her “tarty outfits,” who doesn’t fit in with the other wives, trying to make a living as a door-to-door cosmetic salesperson. Realising that the family will not be able to sustain the lifestyle of the Square for much longer, she hunts down financial makeover guru, television personality Alan Makin, while Philip Burrell decides to move on from making models of golf holes to making models of marathon courses. Meanwhile the resident children, unbeknownst to their parents, struggle with their own issues.

the squareVenom flies in to even the small scenes with two or three characters, but the major laughs break out when the residents come together en masse. The funniest scene in the book IMO takes place at Jane’s dinner party. Jane is the sort of character we  love to hate, and here when she’s on show, at her most pretentious, she’s very funny.

With characters such as these–the pencil-thin rich bitch, the cuckolded husband, the neglected overweight wife, and her slimy cheating spouse you know that you are reading about types rather than individuals–so don’t expect character development here. Yet in spite of the fact that author Rosie Millard’s novel concentrates on stereotypes, we can all too easily imagine people we know in these roles. I struggled with the character of Jane’s son George. He was too mannered, and the segment concerning George’s film seemed constructed for laughs rather than credibility. It’s hard to sustain humour in satire, and when the novel moved towards the fundraiser, the humour lagged and tired as slick wit weakened, and as Jane says as one point, it’s “sort of like realizing that modern British life is indeed modelled on a Carry On film.” But bravo to the author for nailing the pretentious crowd who live in the Square–a place, oddly enough that sounds a lot like Rosie Millard’s own neighbourhood, and a place even more strangely that sounds exactly like a neighbourhood here in N. America…

Opposite the blackboard is the obligatory ‘island’. Every kitchen has one, a marooned stone rectangle surrounded by a cluster of chrome stools. Somewhere on it there will be a single, commanding tap. There might be a recipe book propped up on a lectern, like a religious text.

Beside the island is a colossal, humming fridge and a vast six-burner appliance capable of feeding an entire church choir, should one drop in. This is known as the ‘range’. It is not used very much. Hot meals still tend to come from the microwave, or local restaurants, whose takeaway menus are pinned to a cork board.

The entire room glories in laboratory-style cleanliness. There is an entire cupboard devoted to cleaning implements and chemicals. There is a bespoke bottle for the kitchen’s myriad surfaces, each of which has been quarried, quartered, buffed and bullied into a properly gleaming state of submission.

Kitchens in the Square are a miracle of processed nature. Marble, granite, steel, quartz, slate, with accents of wood and chrome brought together in one glorious assemblage. The kitchens are like a geology lesson.

At night, the au pairs creep out of the small rooms. They enter these bright, soulless places and erect computers upon the marble islands. they perch on chrome stools and talk via Skype to their families in languages which to Belle’s English ear sound like falling water. Alone and undisturbed they explain to their fascinated relations how things are in the Square, a place full of money, nerves, and giant unused ovens.

Review copy

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25 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Millard Rosie

25 responses to “The Square: Rosie Milliard

  1. This sounds rather good. I think I’ll have a read; I’ve got it too.

    • It’s hard to maintain humour throughout a book, and I think it was a mistake to make this culminate in the fundraiser. Still it had lots of nasty observations–almost like an anthropological study.

  2. This sounds fun – having my own issue with these kind of people, so I could do with a bit of satire at their expense.

  3. This does sound fun. I suspect one of my friends would enjoy this very much. She lives in North London, not too far from this type of neighbourhood, and I’m sure she’d be able to recognise the types.

  4. Reproductions of golf holes with $50,000 price tags. It’s almost ridiculous enough to be true.

  5. The cast of characters that you describe sound really entertaining and funny.

    With that, I actually prefer stories like this when the characters have at least a little complexity and there is some development.

  6. Jonathan

    This does sound good Guy. A modern day ‘Abigail’s Party’?

    The kitchen doesn’t get used because it might cause the price of the house (an investment, not a home) to depreciate in value.

    • I’m a fan of Mike Leigh.

      I recently had to look at houses for sale and was amused by the attention given to the kitchens (vast altars to materialism) while there was nothing planted in the garden. What the hell is going on, I wondered, when people can live in a house for 20 years and not plant a shrub while kitchens are remodelled to ridiculous extremes.

      • Jonathan

        I find the houses with no clutter a bit scary – no books, magazines, CDs, clothes, children’s toys, food, food packaging, etc. ‘Just what do they do?’ and then you turn and see the TV that takes up a whole wall.

  7. This sounds like great fun. The cover makes it look like chick-lit though.
    Ah yes, those big kitchens. I’ve seen some that are more expensive than other people’s houses. And – now that you mention it – the gardens were pretty bare too. Odd.

  8. I didn’t imagine that this could be your thing.

    It sounds a lot like chick lit. I’ve lost patience with the ups and downs of shallow rich neighbourhoods with stay-at-home wives. Can’t women writers write about more interesting women characters than trophy wives?

    • I enjoyed the money aspects of the book and the cultural signifiers (ie handbags) but the novel fell into farce which was a shame. Still it did amuse me for a couple of days, and I needed a laugh. I wonder sometimes how trophy wives see themselves.

      • I wonder how they see themselves too.
        Here people tend to look down on women who don’t work. (not that it’s fair, after all, if you enjoy staying at home with your children and you can afford it, why not do it?)

        • I’ve seen that attitude too at academic parties esp when people ask wives what they do and they find out they stay home…Then the stay at home wives seem to be seen as boring dolts. I remember one comment “All she does is stay home and make jello..”

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