The Learning Curve
by Melissa Nathan
You may notice that this is not my usual fare. There’s a lot of pink on the cover and big curly letters, with testimonial quotes from B magazine and Jilly Cooper. You got me – it’s chick-lit. And not well written, wittily observed, you-could-almost-call-this-literary-fiction chick-lit either. But I needed a day of mindless entertainment and, much like a Friends boxset, this provided it.
I haven’t read anything approaching this genre since I was a teenager so I’m not entirely sure how this compares with others of its kind, but I’m sure chick-lit authors don’t expect to be compared to Milan Kundera or Bret Easton Ellis and that’s fine. I don’t deny that a lot of the books I read require a bit of work to get my head round, or just to get into, and I definitely see the attraction of sinking straight into a story from page one.
This isn’t good literature. There were no phrases or descriptions that made me smile at the choice of language. I didn’t find myself transported to a place I’ve never been or start thinking deep thoughts about life, the universe and everything. It was enjoyable, in a guilty kind of way (again, much like Friends). The characters were both familiar and realistic enough to be interested in and the storyline kept me hooked. Perhaps more importantly, on a day when I was pretty much exhausted, a state in which I normally struggle to read, I was happily devouring this without getting a headache.
The storyline is simple. Nicky Hobbs is a primary school teacher who always wanted kids but hasn’t got her man yet. Now she’s turned 30 she’s discovered she also has ambition in the workplace and she worries that she’ll have to choose between career and motherhood. If a man comes along to make the latter an option, that is. As it happens, two men start showing an interest. Rob is a fellow teacher at her school and her ex. They’ve been friends for years since the break-up but the flirtation seems to have subtly changed lately. Then there’s Mark, father to Nicky’s favourite pupil and a workaholic absent father, and single parent. Cue lots of agonising over life-changing decisions and also more minor ones like wardrobe choices, pouring out of hearts to close girl friends and misunderstandings that take months to be cleared up.
The twists and turns of the story are obvious from a mile off and this occasionally grated. The phrasing seemed to suggest that I should be surprised at this, that or the other when I was just thinking ‘About bloody time.’ The debate about career versus motherhood is an interesting one and the differences between parenting styles is also something I’m interested in. They weren’t explored in great depth but they gave a little bit of background colour. There was a decent extended cast of characters who were all fully fleshed out and the dialogue was realistic and occasionally laugh-out-loud funny. The school is the setting for a lot of the book and at times it felt like I was reading a novelisation of Teachers, which is a series I loved so that’s probably a compliment. The bitchiness and cliquiness of the staff room, the sudden changes of allegiance when a relationship is formed or breaks up or a promotion opportunity is announced, the division between those who genuinely love teaching and those who don’t – all felt familiar and provided much of the humour. Nicky herself is a fairly typical white middle-class British woman who worries about whether she looks good and what people think of her but is also determined to have a career on equal terms to any man. Not exactly a feminist but a reasonable approximation of how a lot of women I know think.
I probably won’t seek out other books by this author – which there aren’t many of because Melissa Nathan sadly died of breast cancer shortly after completing this novel, aged just 37 – but if I find myself in that same state of exhaustion without a TV again and another of her books happens to be handy for borrowing, I’ll accept the offer.
Published 2006 by Arrow Books.