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Summary

1957, South-East suburbs of London.

Jean Swinney is a feature writer on a local paper, disappointed in love and - on the brink of 40 - living a limited existence with her truculent mother: a small life from which there is no likelihood of escape.

When a young Swiss woman, Gretchen Tilbury, contacts the paper to claim that her daughter is the result of a virgin birth, it is down to Jean to discover whether she is a miracle or a fraud. But the more Jean investigates, the more her life becomes strangely (and not unpleasantly) intertwined with that of the Tilburys: Gretchen is now a friend and her quirky and charming daughter, Margaret, a sort of surrogate child. And Jean doesn't mean to fall in love with Gretchen's husband, Howard, but Howard surprises her with his dry wit, his intelligence and his kindness - and when she does fall, she falls hard. 

But he is married and to her friend - who is also the subject of the story she is researching for the newspaper, a story that increasingly seems to be causing dark ripples across all their lives. And yet Jean cannot bring herself to discard the chance of finally having a taste of happiness. But there will be a price to pay - and it will be unbearable.

©2020 Clare Chambers (P)2020 Orion Publishing Group

Critic reviews

"The 21st century heir to Jane Austen, Barbara Pym and Elizabeth Taylor. Small Pleasures is both gripping and a huge delight." (Amanda Craig, author of The Lie of the Land) 

"The glorious literary equivalent of pulling the duvet over your head. If you admire Tessa Hadley or Anne Tyler (and there are shades of Barbara Pym too), then this is one for you." (Bookseller, Book of the Month) 

What listeners say about Small Pleasures

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  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars

Poignant, thoughtful & beautifully crafted

I loved this gentle, compassionate story with a heart-stopping end which I won't spoil. Clare Chambers has done careful research on the late 1950s when the novel is set with details of relationships, the lives of women, the food, jobs, trains, clothes etc meticulously woven into a completely successful re-creation of that time which she herself is too young to have experienced as an adult. It's a great achievement.

The stories are cleverly woven together. Jean is near enough 40, living with her tiresome, dependent, querulous mother who dominates her daughter's life. Jean works for a newspaper mainly churning out recipes and household economy hints but is asked to investigate the story of a woman called Gretchen who claims that her 10year-old daughter Margaret was the result of a virgin birth. Jean and Gretchen become unlikely friends, along with little Margaret for whom Jean buys a rabbit. Gretchen's husband Harold, a quiet modest man, accepts Margaret as a daughter, and he too becomes a significant friend and Jean learns the true state of his marriage.

As time passes. Jean and Harold are in love and it seems that life could blossom for them both even if there are obstacles to overcome. This love is detailed with infinite tenderness and compassion as the plot become increasingly complex and we never know quite what will happen - and certainly never guess what does happen. Jean untangles many stories and finds the truth about the virgin birth...

I can't give more away for fear of spoiling one of the most enjoyable, highly original, heart-warming and heart-breaking new novels I've read (or listened to) for a long while. It's also read with exactly the right tone which enriches the story.

Just download it and bury all your worries as you listen, entranced!

15 people found this helpful

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    3 out of 5 stars
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    2 out of 5 stars
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    3 out of 5 stars

Suburban mid century despair

First of all I really like these bleak mid century tales of small lives eeked out. However, this story was marred by the very hamfisted narration. It’s a female narrator with odd disjointed intonation. At times it reminded me of one of those robot messages “you now have five options”. Not only that the narrator isn’t capable of doing a male voice and can only do one male voice so all male characters sounded strained and alike. I found this narration incredibly distracting.
The other beef I had with this book is the ***SPOILER ALERT tragic ending which pulls the rug from under your feet as a reader and for what purpose?. Really a depressing end. Don’t read this if you are feeling down.

7 people found this helpful

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    2 out of 5 stars
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    3 out of 5 stars

Truly awful narration

I have not finished this yet, and while I’m enjoying the story, I may not be able to tolerate the narrator for one second more! Did anyone actually listen to her before approving this?! She’s robotic with the oddest intonations. Almost like the computerised voice of a landline reading out a text message. This is not how you read a story and it’s frankly ruined the book for me.

1 person found this helpful

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loved it

i really enjoyed this book. it was so lovely reading of a gentler age and people with values. This is my first book by this author and it definitely won't be my last.

1 person found this helpful

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Very clever period piece

I do love the details- so evocative of the fifties. And the real geography of the south London suburbs
Thought the reader was spot on too

1 person found this helpful

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    4 out of 5 stars
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Enjoyable

I really enjoyed this book all the way through.. being drawn in from the start. The characters were all so well depicted and the story unfolded so naturally keeping me glued to the end. The narrator did often have a strange matter-of-fact turn to her voice which put me off at times. Strange because a lot of the time she was very good, with the different voices etc. How she could have been so insensitive to these blips in her narration I can't understand. I will definitely investigate more of the same author though.

1 person found this helpful

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    4 out of 5 stars
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    4 out of 5 stars

Mixed emotions

Nice story, beautifully written but It’s all about the ending.. it left me a little depressed.

1 person found this helpful

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    4 out of 5 stars
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Realistic characters and a fresh plot

I really wanted to know what would happen next! The characters are plausible and relatable: the suburban context familiar. There was a slight tension between the author's modern take on love and life and my understanding of 50's Britain but this really provided the intrigue.
The narration was a little distracting ; her male voices sounded like the giant in Jack and the Beanstalk but managed to get over that znd yo really enjoy this story.

1 person found this helpful

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    5 out of 5 stars
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Couldn't stop listening.

I loved this book with its beautifully drawn characters and well observed, sad, often funny writing. I also appreciated the very thorough research that the author had done especially as I have lived in the area where the novel is set and am old enough to remember the 1950s.

1 person found this helpful

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    5 out of 5 stars
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thoroughly enjoyed it

Well narrated, interesting plot and particularly interesting to hear the after word. I recommend this book.