Jojo Moyes is the mistress of the modern day tearjerker; she never fails to produce an emotive response in me when I read her fiction. The story of Suzanna Peacock is a prime example of Moyes’ ability to create characters who feel real and in whose lives you become immersed in the pages that make up her books.
The book centres around Suzanna in the main but in order to understand her story, you must also understand the story of her parents but especially that of her mother, Athene.
After an opening scene which describes the birth of a baby in Buenos Aires, Argentina in 2001, the first delivery of a midwife named Ale (the importance of this becomes clearer later), we are transported to a party being held in the 1960’s and are introduced to three of the main characters of the book: Athene Forster, Douglas Fairley-Hulme and Veronica, known as Vivi, Newton.
Vivi is in love with Douglas and knows that there will never be anyone else for her but it would appear that Douglas has his heart set on another, Athene. Vivi has high hopes for an assignation with Douglas at the party but it is clear when Athene enters the gathering on the back of a horse through the verandah doors that Douglas’s attentions are elsewhere. This is confirmed when Vivi stumbles across them later in flagrante delicto, much to her hurt and disgust.
Athene is captivating; a beautiful, lithe libertine who seeks her pleasure wherever she may find it with no regard whatsoever to the morality of her actions – she simply does. Her family disapprove of her behaviour but can do nothing to control it and so there is much relief when she accepts Douglas’s proposal and becomes Mrs. Fairley-Hulme. But the marriage is doomed to failure.
Skip to the present day and the village of Dere Hampton in Suffolk and we find ourselves learning about the life of Suzanna Peacock, formerly Fairley-Hulme who has had to return to the village of her childhood with her head hung in shame on the verge of bankruptcy. She has brought her husband, Neil and they find themselves living in a small cottage on her father’s estate, a real step down after living in London. Things are tricky between them, there being a constant tension in their communication, caused by their situation but also Suzanna’s prickliness.
Suzanna is a malcontent: nothing pleases her and she has a restlessness in her which means that she cannot settle at things easily. If I’m honest, she got on my nerves at times because she was always being a little down about things and had a massive chip on her shoulder but as with all good books, as her story is revealed, so her attitude becomes more clear. Being closer to her family in Dere Hampton fails to provide her with comfort as she sees their support as constricting. We learn that her mother died whilst giving birth to her and she was brought up by her father and stepmother. Of course, her mother was Athene and her thrall, even after all these years, seems to hold sway over the family but Suzanna especially as she tries to assuage the guilt that she feels at having been responsible for her death.
The tensions in Suzanna’s and Neil’s relationships are not the only ones that permeate the text and this is especially seen in the Fairley-Hulme household between Rosemary and Vivi, mother-in-law and daughter-in-law respectively. Moyes’ depiction of Rosemary, the proud elderly mother of Douglas who is struggling to maintain her dignity and poise in the face of old age is humorous at times but also tinged with sadness. She has been used to being the matriarch whose opinion is valued and followed and as her age progresses, her stature, both physical and influential, reduces. Vivi’s stoic, dependable attitude in the face of hurt and thoughtlessness from the many around her makes her, for me, one of the most likeable characters in the book.
When Suzanna pleads with Neil to let her have her own shop in the village, he concedes but with some reservation as they are solvent but not wealthy and a failed venture could mean their ruin. Suzanna is hoping that having something which is all her own will bring her meaning and happiness and so “The Peacock Emporium” is born. She fills it with everything that she likes as well as an espresso machine for customers and it becomes a place which attracts a select few.
Enter Jessie who becomes Suzanna’s friend and work colleague at the shop, her bright demeanour and friendly chattiness providing a welcome to customers that Suzanna’s reserve finds difficult to offer. Jessie is a local with a good feel for what people in the area like and helps Suzanna enormously and whilst Suzanna may feel like she does not need it, Jessie knows better and her warmth and uncomplicated attitude give Suzanna much needed support.
But Jessie has a very troubled existence with a partner who is possessive and controlling and prone to violence and her positive attitude is a bluff for the tension that must mar her everyday life especially with her daughter, Emma to worry about too.
I like Moyes’ portrayal of village life; what I think that she is good at is the everyday people and the conversations that they have that show the things that interest them, usually quite mundane things but Moyes has a way of delivering dialogue with humour and making these characters become human, people to whom you can relate.
These people come into Suzanna’s shop and we, as readers, get to know them: Arturro and Liliane are other store owners and their attraction for each other is obvious but despite their ages, they seem unable to act on it. There is Mrs Creek who likes to reminisce on the days when she was a sought after seamstress but doesn’t show a lot of interest in anyone else. And finally, there is Alejandro, the male Argentinian midwife who has left the shadow emitted by his domineering mother to come to England and spread his wings. He has a particular attachment to the shop because of its name and the precious memories he has with his father of fishing with him for a big, belligerent fish back in Argentina called the peacock bass.
Suzanna is attracted to Alejandro and it would appear that he feels the same but Suzanna cannot act on it easily – in this, she is not her mother’s girl. When a tragedy befalls the shop which shocks the village and Suzanna is told, by accident, a truth about her mother’s life, she finally manages to break out of the emotional restrictions which have hampered her and her ability to form solid relationships and move on to actually live her life.
When Moyes reveals the truth about Athene and why Suzanna has been brought up by Douglas and Vivi, we are given an insight into Athene, a person who, at face value seems shallow and selfish, but Moyes’ sympathetic description of her life after Douglas makes us, as readers, look on her actions with more clarity and understanding.
Athene’s story reminded me of a biography I’d read called The Bolter about Idina Sackville as their lives are very similar; both are women who flouted the social rules of the societies they lived in; both leave their children to the care of others; both seek the fleeting attractions of assignations of pleasure. The circumstances may be different but the sentiment is similar regarding those actions.
Despite the sadness of the book, it ends happily, again with a birth, as we come full circle, with a sense of resolution and satisfaction. Once more, Moyes has written a novel that is entertaining and moving with the right elements of romance and scandal to make it memorable.