Everybody's Daughter, Nobody's Child by Jane Lapotaire

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Everybody's Daughter, Nobody's Child by Jane Lapotaire

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Category: Autobiography
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Paul Harrop
Reviewed by Paul Harrop
Summary: Actor Jane Lapotaire deftly re-creates post-war Britain and the uncertainties of growing up in foster care, avoiding the usual pitfalls of the celebrity memoir and the 'professional victim' genre.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 384 Date: April 2007
Publisher: Virago Press Ltd
ISBN: 978-1844084166

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I hadn't expected to like this book. Instinctively wary of the celebrity memoir, I eyed its Pelzer-ish title with suspicion. I'm also ashamed to admit that I know little of Jane Lapotaire's highly-regarded TV and stage acting. I'm pleased to report that my trepidation was unfounded. This is a book from an earlier age in more ways than one.

First published 18 years ago, Jane Lapotaire's account of her childhood has been re-issued, presumably for the benefit of readers of her more recent account of recovery from a cerebral haemorrhage. In fact, it's worthy of interest on its own merits.

Because Lapotaire can write. She has an actor's ear for dialogue, knows how to create suspense, and judges exactly how much detail to include or omit. And, unusually in these days when an appearance by any nonentity on Big Brother spells death to acres of trees, she actually has an interesting story to tell.

The book's original title, Grace And Favour referred to Lapotaire's foster mother, Grace Chisnall. Born out of wedlock to a 19-year-old French girl, Jane was taken in by the elderly Grace in whose Ipswich terraced house she grew up.

Jane takes us through her first 18 years from a child's perspective. It is a compliment to her writing talent that she brings post-war Britain to life almost as vividly as William Woodruff recalled an earlier age in his Nab End books. Lapotaire chooses to avoid the historical context of Woodruff's autobiography, preferring to re-create the insular, hermetic world of the child.

This helps us identify with her growing realisation that "Mummy Grace" was not her mother. We share her dawning awareness of her real mother, an exotic perfumed creature who comes to occupy a growing part of the young Jane's life.

Grace, by contrast, is a simple soul, loving and conscientious towards her charge. Seemingly unable to speak in anything other than clichés, she is the dominant presence of the first half of the book.

When Jane starts to spend her school holidays with her real mother in Libya, we and Jane are plunged abruptly into a lifestyle sharply at odds with the poverty, stability and drabness of 1950s Suffolk. Jane's turbulent adolescence is skilfully played out as a battle between these disparate worlds.

I imagine this book was originally published simply because of its intrinsic merits as a good story. She avoids most of the pitfalls of the celebrity memoir. There is no flowery literary pretension or over-written descriptive passages; characters appear because they are interesting or germane to the story.

Lapotaire is as critical of her young self as she was towards others as a child. She does not flinch from accounts of her youthful lying, stealing or cruelty to animals (cat lovers may want to skip the scene in the privy). She is as open and matter-of-fact about her teenage beastliness and ingratitude to Grace as she is about her mammary shortcomings, menstrual mishaps and her underwhelming deflowering.

Although the latter scenes could have been played for laughs, generally she avoids comedy for the sake of it, as she does any attempts to garner pity. Instead we have a very readable account of an childhood unusual in many ways yet reassuringly ordinary in others.

The only slight mystery is the relative suddenness with which Jane abandons her journalistic ambitions to audition for RADA (unsuccessfully) before opting for a place at stage school in Bristol. Little in the preceding pages prepares us for this career choice. Maybe the author's natural modesty about her talent prevented her from dwelling on her thespian abilities. If they are anything like her aptitude as a writer, she should be shouting about them from the rooftops.

For an equally compelling memoir of a childhood from a similar era, why not try Toast by Nigel Slater.

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Buy Everybody's Daughter, Nobody's Child by Jane Lapotaire at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Everybody's Daughter, Nobody's Child by Jane Lapotaire at Amazon.com.


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Brenda Bixler said:

I loved Grace and Favour.The original. I could identify with Jane. I grew up near her,we went to the same shops etc. We are the same age.I remember her in the Gondolier coffee bar in Ipswich. I liked the review. Spot on. Brenda Bixler