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Friday, June 1, 2018

'Never Greener' by Ruth Jones

From the BLURB:

The past has a habit of tracking us down. And tripping us up.

When Kate was twenty-two, she had an intense and passionate affair with a married man, Callum, which ended in heartbreak. Kate thought she’d never get over it.

Seventeen years later, life has moved on – Kate, now a successful actress, is living in London, married to Matt and mother to little Tallulah. Meanwhile Callum and his wife Belinda are happy together, living in Edinburgh and watching their kids grow up. The past, it would seem, is well and truly behind them all.

But then Kate meets Callum again. And they are faced with a choice: to walk away from each other . . . or to risk finding out what might have been.

Second chances are a rare gift in life. But that doesn’t mean they should always be taken . . .

‘Never Greener’ is a 2018 UK women’s fiction novel by television writer, Ruth Jones. Jones wrote the award-winning television series ‘Gavin and Stacey’, in which she played the incorrigible Nessa, and ‘Stella’, in which she played the titular role. ‘Never Greener’ is Jones’s fiction debut, the first of two novels sold off in a 10-way bidding war amongst UK publishers back in 2016.

Right. So. Fair-warning; this novel is going to be a problem for some readers. If there’s one universally problematic ‘trope’ in books – particularly romance, women’s fiction, or “chick lit” generally – that is despised, it’s cheating. There are scores of reviews on Goodreads, for instance, and tags denouncing a work if there’s even a hint of infidelity and designed to give plenty of forewarning to fellow readers. Well – fair warning – there is cheating in ‘Never Greener’. It’s there in the blurb and I am telling you, it happens within the first three pages … in which we first meet Callum MacGregor and Kate Andrews in 1985, when she’s a 22-year-old aspiring actress and he’s a married 39-year-old school teacher with two children, and one on the way. Yup. The hero cheats on his (heavily) pregnant wife within about five hours of meeting the young heroine – when Callum is helping out at his brother’s pub, and Kate comes in to work her first shift of a summer job.

The book leaps between 2002 and 1985 – describing Kate and Callum’s intense love affair when it first began (then ended in heartbreak) and again when it’s rekindled in 2002 after a chance encounter, when Callum is now in his 60s (still happily married to his wife) and Kate is a famous British actress with a husband and five-year-old daughter.

And listen, the cheating wasn’t an issue for me. It’s not a NEVER-EVER trope that I avoid. It’s certainly not the reason I disliked this novel… which was really more just about it being a muddled mess in need of a firmer editorial hand for the writer, whom I admire greatly for her television work, but found severely lacking in the novel-writing stakes.

Let me explain …

On the face of it, this sounds like a novel to slog through of hard-to-like characters making harmful and hurtful decisions. But I was okay with that, going in. After all, Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s brilliant ‘Fleabag TV series showed us the bitingly funny and complex humanity behind “toxic” people and their self-destruction. Something of ‘Never Greener’ also reminded me of British drama shows that had explored infidelity thoughtfully, and from many angles. ‘The 7.39, starring David Morrissey for instance, and a David Tennant episode of ‘True Lovethat’s about a happily married-man bumping into ‘the one that got away’ and getting a brief, second chance with her. Both of these were examples of solid storytelling that didn’t reduce people down to ‘good’ and ‘bad’, but looked at the myriad ways we choose love, and exist within the ramifications of our choices.

And maybe that could have been ‘Never Greener’ too. It was certainly what I wanted. A David Nicholls-esque novel about the very adult mistakes that make us and break us, and that damages other people along the way – told with comedic flair, well-balanced drama and tender heart, from the woman who perfected it in two highly-successful TV series about the wonderfully funny complexity of ordinary people. Heck, Jones even has an endorsement quote from Jojo Moyes who romped this romantic quandary in ‘The Last Letter From Your Lover’! Alas … ‘Never Greener’ is not the novel I thought it’d be. It’s not even a novel I looked very much.

I had such high hopes for this book, and I did come away disappointed … but I don’t think I had unreasonably high expectations. ‘Gavin & Stacey’ was a solid British comedy; ‘Stella’ was a more blue-collar drama, but no less charming. ‘Never Greener’ though reads like someone who is very green when it comes to novel-writing.

For starters –it’s not just Callum and Kate we’re following in this tale. No, there’s Kate’s husband Matt and his best friend Hetty and Callum’s wife Belinda too … And we get *everyone’s* perspective with the omniscient third-person narration. We can even start a chapter following one person’s interiority, but when they make a phone-call to someone else, we’ll then get that person’s side of things too. It’s baffling that these basic fiction foibles weren’t edited and corrected, because they are confusing and quite clearly a TV-writing holdover (especially from Jones’ ensemble-cast writing) that she needed to be rid of.

And the really frustrating thing is that while we follow everyone in narration, that doesn’t actually lead to us learning more about any them. Kate and Callum between them make some pretty radically awful decisions in the spur-of-the-moment, but we only read the action, not the internal reasoning. So one moment Callum is refusing an attempted kiss from Kate, then while she’s on the phone to someone, Callum suddenly has a hand on her leg that’s creeping up her skirt…  it’s completely baffling that these moments are communicated in such sparse sentences (actually very similar to the directions of a script?) but never interrogated by the characters themselves, in the moment. It reads very much ‘Slot A into Slot B’.

This also means that unlikeable characters who are unlikeable for their actions remain so. Kate comes across like an absolute psychopath, and Callum reads like a middle-aged cliché. That their relationship is concocted of mostly sexual encounters on the page also erodes our ability to care about them … when they meet, Kate is a 22-year-old aspiring actress and Callum is 39 with three children, a schoolteacher. You’d think they’d have little in common – and because we literally only read about them shagging (or talking about how they’ll rendezvous to shag again) that’s certainly how it comes across (which further lends Callum to the cliché). Because of this they are – frankly – utterly boring. It’s a hollow horniness, if you will – of two dull people who are single-minded only in their own selfish desires for carnality. And it’s not well written sex either. Ruth Jones said in an interview with the Guardian that “the sex scenes were quite a challenge” and I can only think they were too hard, so she never actually wrote them. Because they’re not scenes – but summaries of sexual encounters. And honestly, they read like vague porn descriptions along the lines of “and then they shagged for 36-hours straight!”. Even when Kate and a 60-something Callum rekindle their romance, it’s straight back into the 3-hour long bonk sessions that are terribly erotic and wonderful – really! – we’re told. Callum not flagging at all. Uh-huh.

It’s a tough slog to read this unfolding “romance”, and certainly not a story about the nuance of affection and affairs (Ruth Jones is no Liane Moriarty, or Mhairi McFarlane – for instance – both of whom regularly unearth the murkiness of lust and love). In fact, the entirely of Callum and Kate’s intense sexual chemistry (we’re told) seems to be down to the fact that Kate is really really ridiculously good looking. Just really stunningly gorgeous. And Callum is a fit ex-Rugby man. Again – because we really don’t read them relating to one another as people, just the (summarised) very brilliant sex they’re having, it’s a real stretch to believe their fiery passion …

Another drawback of Ruth Jones never actually developing these characters is that with Kate in particular, it’s clear she’s trying to hint at something deeper and more disturbing going on in her psyche … but without a more realised internal monologue, we’re completely in the dark. Sure, we get some interesting interactions of Kate on set feeling the pressure of always being “on” and aware of people scrutinising her, but it’s a fleeting exploration of what drives this character.

I think part of the overall ‘Never Greener’ problem is … it’s telling the wrong story. Kate and Callum are boring. They’re humping lunatics, frankly (who are having the very good sex)  – with no redeemable or credible qualities. The only real character of interest is Callum’s wife, Belinda. A Welsh stalwart, her background is far more interesting (even how she and Callum first met, briefly hints at a more realised heroine than all of what we read in Kate!) and lends itself to an obvious re-emergence arc. Her husband has an affair with a stunningly beautiful actress who she then has to see on the telly in innumerable British dramas and then at the BAFTAs. Frankly, the actress in that scenario is not interesting – the wronged wife is the more natural protagonist for women’s fiction narrative – and given Ruth Jones’s background with ‘Stella’, it’s who I think would have been the more natural conduit for this story from her.

The timeline also jumps around quite a bit. We can go from Callum and Kate having a tryst at a Travelodge, to the next chapter is her back on-set and then she’ll recount how she got home … it flits and flies about, again – almost like Jones is used to on-set locations filling in the context with visual-cues, and not having to map her character’s whereabouts in timeline.

Now, I wondered if I was just being really harsh on this book – because my hopes were up? But then I read this Guardian books review, and I was relieved to find someone else who had the same frustrations; “Jones may have a good novel in her, but even her spark can’t set this soggy material alight.” Ouch. But – accurate.

Fair-warning too – there are no happy-endings here. There’s also no big ‘Fleabag’-esque climax that reveals real emotional and social consequences for the hurt caused prior, nor a sense of moving forward. It just kind of … ends. With a thud. And while the last 60 or so pages do have a better feeling of pace and urgency, it still all amounts to – well – not a lot, really.

I still believe that Ruth Jones has a few good stories to tell, that’ll come across in novel-form. But I think her publisher and editor need to help rid her of the lazy ways she seems stuck in TV-mode, to the detriment of these fiction attempts. Her star alone can’t carry a bad story, awkwardly told.


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