May Contain Nuts by John O'Farrell

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May Contain Nuts by John O'Farrell

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: Magda Healey
Reviewed by Magda Healey
Summary: A comedy of paranoid and over-competitive parenting in the urban jungle of Clapham starts off well but ends disappointingly. All in all, it's still an enjoyable read, funny and engaging, though let down by the sugary ending and an unlikely transformation of the main character. Borrow and enjoy as a light read but ignore pretences at diagnosis.
Buy? No Borrow? Yes
Pages: 400 Date: March 2006
Publisher: Black Swan
ISBN: 0552771627

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Just to get the obvious out of the way, 'May Contain Nuts' is a funny, sometimes laugh-out-loud funny book. It starts out very promisingly: as a farce, really, an almost (but not quite, so as not to alienate the potential readership) biting satire on ridiculously competitive urban upper middle class parents hot-housing their children into Prokofiev appreciation and contract bridge, children scheduled, tutored and stimulated; never left alone to do 'whatever', never let go. Satire on paranoid parenting with mothers checking every label of every foodstuff and not allowing an 11 year old to walk down the road to a newsagent, never mind travel on a bus to school. Satire on public (private) education system of preparatory schools and secondary colleges thriving on pretence, snobbery and unshakeable belief that children who don't get the right education - paid for education, of course - will inevitably end up as drug addicts, prostitutes or Blockbuster Rentals clerks.

The story is narrated by Alice Chaplin, a mother of three and a very worried inhabitant of a 'nice street' in Clapham. On of the three is hapless Molly, facing an exam to a prestigious Chelsea College, established 2001 in the former Chelsea Hospital buildings after the last pensioner has been turfed out to Sussex. Alice and her financial consultant husband are simply desperate for Molly to pass that exam. So desperate, in fact, that faced by the reality of their daughter's rather low performance in test settings they decide that the only way to attain the objective is for Alice to dress up and pretend to be an 11 year old just for the exam day...

Up until then "May Contain Nuts" is very good. The characters, including the narrator, are suitably repulsive. The dialogue funny. The observations of the over-the-top behaviour often belong to it-couldn't possibly-be-true-but-hang-on-it-really-actually-is-true type. The authorial comments, though rather unconvincingly pronounced via the medium of Alice, spiky and insightful. The writing, though not particularly sophisticated, doesn't grate and makes for a fast, easy, quality-newspaper-column-like read.

And then it all goes bit pear-shaped. In circumstances I will leave to you to discover, Alice comes across a very gifted black girl from a local council estate. She befriends the family. She visits Battersea Comprehensive. She undergoes - sort of - a road to Damascus type epiphany.

The plot still maintains the pace and the book remains a fast, entertaining read throughout. To the very end I wasn't sure which school - and by what means - Molly would end up at.

But apart from that the novel falls apart and what started with a series of promising bangs ends with a disappointing whimper (or, taking into account rather saccharine ending, with a sickly smile). Alice changes almost overnight from a dislikeable, obsessive idiot incapable of calculating that 6 is a quarter of 24 and scared of every shadow behind every bush, even in the middle of the day; to an intelligent, insightful, happy(ish), sensible grown up. It was all because she wasn't a confident individual herself, you see... it was her school-age traumas and resulting insecurities that made her a resistance-less putty in the hands of her husband and friends.

O'Farrell cops out of making a social diagnosis - which would be OK in a light read - if it wasn't for the fact that he is actually making a psychological one. The explanation of the paranoid and competitive parenting pattern he provides is, ironically, taken from a psychobabble paradigm that he himself mocks in the entertaining inserts between chapters of the book. The state comprehensive school, despite few nods to possible problems with bullies and class conflict, is presented in a rather utopian light. Alice's and other urban 4x4 driving mothers' fears and obsessions are diagnosed as being all in the mind and the effect of personal ignorance and/or personal insecurities, not a symptom of a wider social malaise.

All in all, it's still an enjoyable read, funny and engaging, though let down by the sugary ending and an unlikely transformation of the main character from a enjoyable caricature to a likeable but boring human being.

Booklists.jpg May Contain Nuts by John O'Farrell is in the Top Ten Tube Reads.

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kerry said:

Cripes Magda, that's brilliant. I read this ages ago and largely enjoyed it for what it was. I did what O'Farrell did and didn't bother to look to hard at the social aspects of the book. I went to both public and state school. The difference between them was nothing short of traffic stoppingly spectacular. I agree that the image he has painted of the state school is like something out of a political broadcast on behalf of the labour party and can't believe I didn't bother to pick up on it other than subconsciously. Thank you for kicking me in the social conscience!