Getting It Right: Elizabeth Jane Howard

“People usually find what they seek, if they really search for it.”

For some reason, I had the impression that Elizabeth Jane Howard’s novel, Getting It Right, was the story of a young man losing his virginity–the fodder of those teen movies which so many people seem to find hilarious. Anyway, it was that description that put me off of reading this book, and that’s a shame as this is a wonderfully funny tale–different from other novels I’ve read (and enjoyed) from this author to date. In fact, I think this is my favourite Howard novel so far.

getting it right

Gavin Lamb, is a 31-year-old London hairdresser who lives with his mum and dad. Right away we have an impression of Gavin, right? Even his name gives the reader a hint that Gavin is a gentle soul, and then he’s still living at home. What’s going on with that?

Gavin is a good son, a loyal friend, an excellent hairdresser and takes his job very seriously. Beyond work he has an active intellectual life; he’s a classical music aficionado, loves poetry and literature and also attends the opera.

Now let’s list what’s wrong with Gavin’s life:

He has mentally constructed something  he calls the ‘Ladder of Fear,’ and women are right at the top. He’s painfully shy with women, so there’s no girlfriend, but there are fantasies. Not graphic and mostly dreamlike. 

Gavin works for Mr. Achilles, the toupee-wearing, tight-fisted salon owner who sits reading the racing paper all day long and only breaks concentration on his bets to criticize his employees and deliver lectures.

Gavin’s married sister, Marge, is determined that Gavin should marry, and his sister’s “undoubted favourite” was Muriel. a woman that Gavin isn’t attracted to at all. Still that doesn’t put Muriel off and she pursues Gavin, even showing up at the salon, much to Gavin’s embarrassment, to get her hair done. In her mind, she’s already planted her flag and staked a claim.

Plus there’s Gavin’s weird home life. Gavin’s mother is a neurotic woman full of bizarre theories; she sits making outfits for a teddy bear no one wants, and produces meals which are a “recurring hazard.”  Once when Gavin and his resilient father “mildly” say that a curry was too hot, her reaction was extreme:

She “burst into wracking sobs and a tirade that beginning with their ingratitude had extended to the futility of her whole life. It had taken hours to calm her, and even then she had not been really appeased and they had been treated to tinned food served with sardonic sniffs and nasty remarks made to Providence for nearly a week.” 

One particularly revolting meal involves a chicken mole for which Gavin’s mother substitutes “that nasty unsweetened chocolate” with Cadbury’s Fruit and Nut. Gavin and his father work in cahoots to bolster domestic tranquility with appeasement:

She was always one jump ahead, Gavin thought, no sooner had they laid one anxiety to rest than she pounced upon another and they lumbered after her shovelling sand into all the ground she cut beneath their feet: she called it ‘Where would be you be without me?’ and he [dad] called it ‘understanding women’. It gave them both a sense of domestic strategy, Gavin thought. 

So these are the things troubling Gavin when the novel begins. Gavin’s one friend, masseur Harry lives with the volatile, vain, violent Winthrop who smashes china and delivers black eyes from flying ashtrays. Harry, thinks that Gavin may also be gay but that he just hasn’t ‘declared’ himself yet. Harry, deciding to be ‘helpful’ invites Gavin to a party, and while Gavin feels as though he’s “being propelled along what could only turn out to be a sexual cul-de-sac” he attends the party to avoid Muriel. It’s a party that changes Gavin’s life. ..

The characters range from eccentric to downright bonkers. Gavin’s policy of appeasement gets him into deep waters when he meets the anorexic, desperate, needy and totally looney Minerva Munday and her bizarre parents. 

At one point in the novel, a character asks Gavin if he’s noticed that “everyone who gets married” is a bit enclosed. There’s Peter, a hairdresser who works with Gavin, and his wife Hazel. They’ve exploded into a frenzy of DIY home improvement and their dreary one-dimensional lives are driven by Peter’s extreme financial planning for a future that looks stunningly miserable. Then there’s Minerva’s parents who are also totally bonkers. Her mother is an alcoholic and her father is a pompous bore. Their marriage, complete with stately home and a creaky old butler, could very well be a long-running stage play as it seems guaranteed that the same lines are rolled out every night. All the marriages/relationships in the novel are bizarre with each partner acting out the roles and the lines they’ve held for years, both dodging and creating domestic explosions as best they can. 

Finally I have to add that some of the most brilliant parts of this wonderful book are Gavin’s scenes with his clients. Some of the clients are sweet, some are nasty, some are sad and some come in and rant their beliefs at Gavin who puts his mind “in neutral.” There’s too much to add here but one of my favourites is Mrs Wagstaffe and her “irritable dachshund Sherry.” She insists on bringing the dog to the hairdresser and there he sits “poised” in his owner’s lap and fends off Gavin.

“Now then, Sherry, good morning, Mrs Wagstaffe,” he said in that order.

“Isn’t he amazing? He never forgets.”

Since Mrs Wagstaffe came in regularity every three weeks to have her iron-grey bob and fringe trimmed, there seems no earthly reason why Sherry should forget, but as a master of petty grievance he would probably remember if she didn’t come in more than once a year. 

“Let him smell you,” invited Mrs Wagstaffe, but Gavin had been had that way.

I’ve said on this blog numerous times that I prefer nasty characters, but Getting it Right is an exception. Gavin is a nice person: kind, considerate, responsible–a good employee, a good friend, a good son, and while ‘nice’ people can be boring to read about, Gavin proves to be an exception. Gavin is given to deep introspective musing about people and relationships, and he is deeply sensitive (too much so) when it comes to the problems of others. This leads to Gavin believing he’s responsible for situations and people when he isn’t. I enjoyed being in Gavin’s head–although I winced a bit when he started his intellectual education of a workmate.

Highly, highly recommended. 

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7 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Howard Elizabeth Jane

7 responses to “Getting It Right: Elizabeth Jane Howard

  1. Will definitely be reading this. And I can also recommend a fantastic short story by A S Byatt called Medusa’s Ankles from The Matisse Stories for an account of the hairdressing experience from a woman’s point of view.

  2. I read that collection some time ago but I don’t recall that particular story.

  3. Oddly enough, I read this novel a couple if years ago and found it too silly for my tastes (or possibly my mood) at the time. It was the vampish Minerva that did it for me as I couldn’t quite ‘buy’ her character and the nature of her relationship with Gavin. Maybe I should give it another try, especially as you enjoyed it so much!

    (PS I completely agree with you about the scenes between Gavin and his clients – they are hilarious and beautifully judged.)

    • I wondered how the author managed to get the scenes in the hairdressers so perfectly.
      And FYI I tried this a few years ago and abandoned it as I had the same reaction. This time I thoroughly enjoyed it. Maybe it was timing.

  4. Jonathan

    Loads of crazy characters. Yes!

  5. Crazies are always fun to read about, Gavin is surrounded.

  6. This sounds great. I’d love to read it for the hairdresser scenes alone. It sounds very different from her other books.

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