Million Love Songs – Carole Matthews
I’ve read Carole’s novels for about ten years now. Perhaps not every single one – she usually publishes two a year. I stop by and read the latest one when I feel like I want to visit old friends. Even when the characters are strangers, they still feel like old friends. There’s something about the world she conjures that seems at once welcoming and familiar. She likes to give us cosiness and friendship, but also excruciating embarrassment and a certain amount of calamity. All these things are a strong draw for me, in those times I want to read something soothingly funny and just a bit – but not too – soppily romantic.
The heroines are always resourceful and practical – Ruby Brown is no exception. She’s unusual in Carole’s oeuvre in that she doesn’t have any particular talent or ambition that she discovers and hones through the course of the book. She isn’t a whizz at baking or making up business plans. Ruby is just a nice person with modest ambitions to be happily fulfilled. In a way her story is more old-fashioned than those of other Matthews heroines of recent years – it’s a tale of vacillating between two very different suitors and trying to figure out what kind of life might be best for her. Will she opt for the adventurous, spoiled playboy Mason or the domestic complications of divorced dad Joe.
I absolutely believe in all these characters, and it’s something to do with the way Ruby addresses us directly – begging our indulgence, confiding in us, whispering asides about her friend, Charlie. The tone is casual and guileless – we like Ruby because she tells us the unadorned truth. Even her most embarrassing moments don’t make us cringe too much because she never plays victim, even when she’s in the worst moments of being tangled up with ‘Shagger’ Mason. When he takes her away for a supposedly romantic weekend in Paris he shags the whole thing up big time, but Ruby can admit to herself (and us) when she’s made a daft mistake, and she simply walks out to do her sight-seeing alone.
Carole’s heroines are always keen to try out something new. Here, as well as threesomes it’s scuba-diving and there’s a lovely, gentle ruefulness about the kinds of situations you get into if you embrace new possibilities. There’s every chance that you’ll end up bobbing about at the bottom of a murky pool holding some fat bloke’s hand, or hanging around in a quarry while everyone else is snorkeling about. Ruby puts herself bravely out there – even when the results look as if they might be disappointing. She’s even willing to hang out in hotel foyers waiting for a glimpse of Take That. Throughout all of these things there’s an underlying belief in the idea of throwing yourself whole-heartedly into stuff, and in trusting that things will work out in the end.
Ruby is forthright and confident and, perhaps, a little more profane than the average Matthews heroine. I liked her cursing and swearing a lot – there was a breeziness to it. Also, her frankness about the sexual adventures Ruby occasionally gives herself up to – all of that seemed realistic to me, and about as silly, awkward and exciting as these things can be in real life. Ruby’s robust swearing and shagging was refreshing in a pop culture world that seems just a bit mimsy, mild and well-behaved these days.
When it was finished I felt very much like I’d spent time with old friends and heard all their latest, eyebrow-raising stories and then, all of a sudden, it was over. But that’s the good part of carefully leaving out one or two of Carole’s books now and then, and setting them aside for rainy weekends: you’ve always got one on stand-by, for when you want to return to her world.