30 March 2015

Man at the Helm by Nina Stibbe (Bullet Review)

Man at the Helm by Nina StibbeGeneral plot: In 1970, when Lizzie Vogel was just nine years old, her wealthy father left the family for first a man and then another woman. After the divorce and a move to the country, Lizzie is dismayed to find that the villagers hold them at arm's length. Her older sister, at the wise age of eleven, is not surprised, telling Lizzie that they won't be accepted until there is once again a man at the head of the house.

Thus the sisters create a "man list" of potential mates for their mother, dreaming up ways to get various village men--no matter their current marital status--to date their mom. In the meantime, Mrs. Vogel, who is "temperamentally unsuited" for anything practical, becomes unhinged, finding solace in drink and pills and in writing an autobiographical play. When the realities of her new life can no longer be ignored, Mom must find the strength to keep the family afloat.

General thoughts: Although my summary of Man at the Helm sounds a little bleak, Nina Stibbe's novel is actually full of charm and humor to soften the underlying story of a family lost at sea looking for a safe harbor. I was particularly impressed with Stibbe's ability to see the world through a child's perspective. Lizzie's voice seems utterly authentic.

from review aat www.BethFishReads.comEven in the darkest moments, Stibbe remembers her narrator is a just a girl. Lizzie's misconceptions of dating and adult relationships, her confusion over her mother's behavior, her mixed feelings about her father, and her innocent acceptance of her mother's attempt to self-medicate all ring true. These same things, however, are also the source of laugh-out-loud humor, especially as the sisters play matchmaker and attempt to take over laundry duty. Not to be missed: Their younger brother's brilliant scene of acting out in a restaurant during an outing with their father.

Time period: I wonder if younger readers will be put off by the notion of the girls thinking that their mother needs a husband, but many women born in the early 1940s were unprepared to earn the kind of living required to raise three children, and Mrs. Vogel is a classic example. Although times were indeed a-changing, change had not yet caught on in rural England. In addition, the freedom that Lizzie and her siblings had might also be hard to understand. But back then all kids were pretty much on their own during the day, with very little adult supervision. Stibbes nails the time period in other ways too, such as the easy access Mrs. Vogel has to Valium and the music the girls listen to.

Audiobook: Imogen Church read the unabridged audiobook (Audible Studios; 9 hr, 57 min) with great skill, nicely capturing Lizzie's personality. For more on the audiobook, see my review for AudioFile magazine.

Published by Little, Brown, 2015 (print)
ISBN-13: 9780316286671
Source: Review (audio) (see review policy)
Copyright © cbl for Beth Fish Reads, all rights reserved (see review policy)


Daryl 3/30/15, 9:12 AM  

i am adding this to my TBR list .. thanks!

Katherine P 3/30/15, 9:17 AM  

This sounds interesting. I agree that feeling like a husband is needed isn't unusual in that time period so I don't think that would bother me. This sounds interesting and the audio narrator sounds good. Thanks for sharing! I hadn't heard of this book before!

bermudaonion 3/30/15, 7:25 PM  

Yeah, the idea of a woman needing a husband is passe these days but it certainly wasn't back then. This sounds charming!

Cleo Bannister 3/31/15, 3:35 PM  

This is definitely one for my TBR - I really enjoyed Love Nina so it'll be good to read a novel by this author.

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