Small Pleasures by Clare Chambers – and in Cornwall

Clare Chambers, Small Pleasures. Weidenfeld & Nicholson, paperback, 2021. First published 2020

I bought this for Mrs TD, who so enjoyed it she urged me to read it when she’d finished. I was less enthusiastic.

Clare Chambers Small Pleasures cover I did enjoy the depiction of the central character, Jean, a middle-aged small-town newspaper journalist whose existence has shrunk to that of a Barbara Pym routine of longing for love and kindness while caring for an ungrateful, spiteful and embarrassingly rude old mother. When she does find a caring, sensitive man who returns her love, there’s a strong sense of fulfilment but also of foreboding.

This is the best element in the novel: a heartwarming and moving portrayal of the kind of woman not often given such scrupulous and sympathetic authorial attention.

The virgin birth plot is less satisfactory. Jean is investigating the extraordinary story of a woman who claimed she’d given birth to her daughter, now aged ten, without the intervention of a man. Chambers strings out this mystery for over 300 pages, and I felt she sort of lost interest in its outcome about a third of the way through.

There’s an early spoiler, too, which partly caused my lukewarm reaction to the central plot.

I’d recommend Small Pleasures, however, as a not too demanding and often very touching portrait of a woman who thought her chances of experiencing love and passion again had vanished. There’s always hope, even though life has ways of thwarting those chances.

Cove nr FalmouthI’ve been pretty busy with a work project lately, hence the silence of the blog. So I’ll finish with a few images of some recent small (summer) pleasures in Cornwall. Between work sessions I’ve been enjoying coastal walks with Mrs TD. This cove is near Pendennis Castle (built in Henry VIII’s reign) in Falmouth, where we went early this month. The footpath takes the walker past some smaller, less venerable and imposing military installations that would also have guarded the entrance to the Carrick Roads and Falmouth docks and harbour. Just before I took this picture of the pleasant cove a seal popped its head up and scrutinised us with what looked like a mix of interest and disappointment. He’d gone by the time I got my phone out, unfortunately.

Trevone The following week we went up the north coast beyond Padstow, now brimming with posh London tourists, to the less frequented and beautiful beach at Trevone. This picture shows the rocky foreshore nearby; the sandy beach is just to the right of it. We’d read about a rockpool a short walk along the coast. It turned out to be an ideal little natural swimming pool, without the currents and waves of the open sea. Three generations of families were enjoying it at the same time as us – there was a lovely sense of shared (small) pleasure.

Carbis Bay gull A few days later, during Britain’s week-long hot spell (aka summer), we returned to Carbis Bay with Mrs TD’s sister and brother-in-law. When I reported about this beach last month, just as the G7 conference was ending, it was closed to visitors; now it’s much busier – but still didn’t feel crowded. Here’s my usual picture of a truculent seagull, glaring at me for having the effrontery to take its picture without some sort of recompense. Godrevy lighthouse is just  visible in the background. This is the one that (partially) inspired Virginia Woolf’s novel To the Lighthouse; as is well known, she and her family used to holiday regularly at St Ives, just round the headland from Carbis Bay.

Now we’re back to cooler weather and showers. But there are occasional swooping, screeching groups of swifts over our house to brighten the days.


12 thoughts on “Small Pleasures by Clare Chambers – and in Cornwall

  1. Hi Simon! Hope you aren’t working too hard and are able to fit in some more of those lovely walks, with photos The current set is very nice BTW, especially the first one. It looks so cool, temperature -wise and I love the hint of the castle in the background. Without being the same of course your coast reminds me a bit of New England, where I lived for a fairly extended pretty back in the 1970s. Quite different from Florida’s coast although I think the sea gull attitude is certainly universal!
    I was interested in your take on Chambers’ Small Pleasures, which I keep looking at and continue to decide not to read! It. It’s appealing on one level but . . . the virgin birth thing, the length and what sounds like a rambling plot, well . . . There’s just too much competition out there! I’ve just finished Katie Kitamura’s Intimacies this week and was interested to skim the Guardian review this morning, which was quite favorable. I’m still mulling over my own reactions!

    • Reached a pause this week, so a brief spell of relaxation now. Glad you liked the coastal scenery. I’m not sure what the Falmouth structure is: not a full-on castle, more of a fortified lookout post, I think. Pendennis, round the headland, is the real thing, looking across Carrick Roads to its partner castle on a headland at St Mawes. I wouldn’t want to put you off reading this novel- it’s strengths outweigh the weaknesses.

  2. Lovely seeing Carbis Bay, I took a great pic of the Lighthouse and had it printed for my friend Ali for her birthday one year! I have had two friends give poor reviews of the book, one was enraged by the virgin birth and spoiler, the other by the attitude to the lesbian relationship, so I’m giving it a big miss!

  3. I loved Small Pleasures, and while I’m a little sad to hear of your somewhat lukewarm reaction to it, I can totally understand why. The portrayal of Jean’s life was beautifully done, full of compassion and insight into her hopes and preoccupations. That alone was enough to completely win me over…

    Lovely photos of Cornwall, as ever. What’s the general feeling in Cornwall right now, especially in relation to tourism? Are the locals breathing a sigh of relief due to the upswing in business (vs recent months) or is it too busy in the beauty spots such as Padstow to feel comfortable?

    • I agree about the character portrayal of Jean – this was beautifully done. Feelings about the larger than usual influx of visitors to Cornwall (the staycation phenomenon) are mixed. But there’s always a split in opinion between the local business people, who rely on the holiday trade, and general locals, who feel overrun. We (me & Mrs TD) tend to avoid the beaches from about now. Even the more remote ones get so busy. There are of course honeypot places like Padstow, as you say. St Ives is another.

  4. Thanks for this review – mine is due in the week. I too wondered about the huge success of this book, but found it an easy read. And I think your point about the character getting good attention in a novel, as in Barbara Pym’s novel, is a good one.

  5. My daughter has just spent a week in Falmouth at a university conference and has been thrilled with the town and coves – especially Kynance cove (?) It’s wonderful when you find private little sands isn’t it?! I’m not so sure of the book though!

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