Friends phoned me when Alida Becker in The New York Times Book Review compared Nina Stibbe’s first novel, Man at the Helm, to Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle.
Of course I bought the book.
Stibbe’s comedy is so charming and witty that I laughed and kept reading bits to friends. (An annoying habit, I admit.)
Set in the 1970s, this hilarious novel,narrated by Lizzie, the nine-year-old middle child, begins with a sketch of the events that break up the Vogel family. Everything was “humdrum and comfortable until an evening in 1970 when our mother listened in to our father’s phone calls and ended up blowing her nose on a tea towel–a thing she’d only have done in an absolute emergency.”
Stibbe’s lean, comic style is often reminiscent of Dodie Smith’s. Like Smith’s character Mr. Mortmain, a blocked award-winning writer who goes to prison for wielding a cake knife at his wife, their mother, a failed playwright, has a temper. Furious to learn that her husband is having an affair with a man, she attacks him with a plate of eggs. After a violent fight, he takes off in his chauffeured car. Lizzie’s sister hopes they won’t split up because she thinks their mother “will go 100 percent crazy on her own.”
After the divorce, their father settles down with a new woman and buys a big house in a village for his first family. Village life is strange after London. Do they fit in? They do not. Their long-haired, pretty mother drinks, pops pills, and keeps writing scenes for an ongoing play based on her life. “Jesus fucking wept,” she says when they enter the village. The Vogels are snubbed at village fetes and costume competitions. A farmer threatens to shoot their dog Debbie if she continues to break into his fields. The neighbors are threatened to have a pretty divorcee in their midst.
In this hostile setting, Lizzie, her younger brother, and older sister are at a loss. And so Lizzie’s sister, age 11, decides they must find a man for their mother because she needs a “man at the helm.”
They make a long list of men and write letters in their mother’s name inviting them to help with various problems. Among them are Mr. Swift the vet, Charlie Bates the plumber, the vicar, and their next-door neighbor, Mr. Longlady. Most are happy to have sex with their mother. She goes mad for Charlie Bates, who “borrows” big sums of money.
The children adjust to whatever happens, have ponies, dislike their father’s new family, and take it in stride when they must go to London to buy illicit pills for their mother after the local doctor refuses to increase the dose.
When money runs out, their mother buys a cheap house in a housing estate, gets off the pills, and finds a job. She seems livelier, but the whole business of being a single mother is exhausting. On Saturdays at the grocery store she is often too tired to go through the line with the cart. They return without food.
Do women need a man at the helm? Life is hard for single mothers, and Mrs. Vogel is undoubtedly frail. Will she find romance? I won’t tell. But her life improves when she gets out of the house, and we see that she didn’t need her children to be matchmakers. Gradually the Vogel family comes into their own.