A Matter of Degree by Zoe Simpson
|A Matter of Degree by Zoe Simpson|
|Category: Women's Fiction|
|Reviewer: Sue Magee|
|Summary: Middle-aged and unscientific Nessie sets out to get an MSc: strong female characters and a good, well-constructed plot. Recommended.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 396||Date: March 2008|
|Publisher: Fossil Imprints|
Nessie Elliott is at that awful stage in life with which many middle-aged women will be familiar. After decades of caring for others they're redundant. Their children have left home – or only return in an emergency – and their parents still retain at least a streak of independence. Technology is getting away from them, the body isn't what it once was and it's not clear how they're going to fill the rest of their lives. Does Nessie sit back and let depression overtake her? No, she's a feisty woman and despite being rather unscientific she decides that what she wants is an MSc in Exercise and Health.
I empathised with Nessie straight away. There are only a handful of years between us and pretty well all the thoughts that went through her head have been through mine too. I knew only too well the feeling of ignorance when you realise that the modern world revolves around emails, spreadsheets, Powerpoint presentations and mobile phones. I have stared up that same learning curve and Zoe Simpson has it perfectly. Nessie is frequently confused, often clumsy and regularly resorts to being the mother figure when all else fails. She's a worker though and she's determined to pass the course. She comes off the pages fully formed. You might love her or be annoyed by her but you'll know her.
There's a good supporting cast of female characters with the Chinese girls on the course being a masterstroke. They're far from home and struggling to learn in a language they've not yet mastered, but the University needs the money they pay in fees. Some people do all they can to help them but others are not quite so accommodating. The male characters weren't so strong with only Paul, Nessie's husband and Scott, a tutor standing out. The rest tended to blur together and sometimes I wasn't entirely certain who was who.
It's a good story. I wasn't entirely certain at the beginning – I mean how riveting can one woman's quest to get an MSc really be? But I was surprised by how I was drawn in. It was good to see Nessie mastering (pun intended) her subject and getting healthier into the bargain as she gave up smoking and took more exercise. I could understand how she wondered if her marriage to Paul hadn't become a little dull and how the charms of others might be tempting. The plot itself is good, but at times I was a little confused, particularly in the early stages. The author obviously knows all about the MSc course but some of the detail and the jargon left me floundering.
The writing is variable. Dialogue is consistently good, with a real ear for how people speak but the narrative could have been sharpened up by some rigorous editing. This would have eliminated a rather odd drink called flat cocoa-cola and I wouldn't have been left with the strange vision produced by I took a prophylactic, calming breath before I dived past the mahogany panelled door into white and gold splendour. I hesitate to say that the writing is a minor point but it has to be put in the context of a good story and a character who has stayed in my mind.
I'd like to thank the author for sending me a copy of her debut novel to read.
Nessie's mother lives on a narrow boat and it was partly this and partly the style of the book which put me in mind of Going Dutch by Katie Fforde. For another look at university politics we can recommend Hearts and Minds by Rosy Thornton.
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You can read more book reviews or buy A Matter of Degree by Zoe Simpson at Amazon.com.
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