When I read the premise of Lucy Mangan’s debut novel, Are We Having Fun Yet?, I had certain preconceptions. Her protagonist, Liz, is about to turn 40 and has a husband, two small children, a job and a cast of sympathetic friends, mostly fellow mums at the school gate.
Books detailing such lifestyles are not hard to find, and while the narrative of this novel does stick to the formula – describing the unfairness of a mother’s domestic role and the quest to find a moment to oneself, with well worn characters such as competitive parents, an unsympathetic boss, uncooperative children and an interfering mother-in-law – Are We Having Fun Yet? is a work of genius, managing to be very funny, exceptionally warm and thoroughly thought-provoking all at the same time.
As fans of her journalism will already be aware, Mangan cannot write a bad line. Breezy first-person diary entries – she was apparently inspired by EM Delafield’s Diary of a Provincial Lady, a comedy classic published in the 1930s – are updated for a modern woman who is profane, political, witty and self-aware.
Underlying the humour, however, are serious thoughts on gender balance, relationships, parenting and ageing, although these are woven seamlessly into the narrative.
Liz is also great on advice. One the advantages of having a pet, she muses, is that it allows you to swear at your spouse: “If and when you are ever driven past the point of silent endurance by an activity, say, or the behaviour of a nearby party and find yourself muttering ‘Dick!’ in so heartfelt a manner that you're overheard by said party, you can pretend you were annoyed with the animal.”
The novel’s wit and sharply-drawn, instantly-recognisable characters make it not just a highly enjoyable read, but also a surgical dissection of the unfair expectations society still places on women.
Liz’s husband Richard is joyfully written as an overly verbose barrister, referred to as Fat Dad by his forthright daughter. He’s not a bad parent or partner, it is just that everyone expects less of him, including himself. When Liz is ill, she still has to micromanage the family, because Richard can’t begin to know where the dressing-up box is for World Book Day. (It’s in the children’s bedroom, where it has always been.)
Of Richard’s to-do list, Liz says: “I keep it for laughs. Dry, hollow laughs.”
The female friendships described are the glue that keeps things from falling apart, despite tragedy and heartache. Most of a woman’s life, Liz realises, is a lie: “‘Inwardly mutinous, outwardly mute’ should have been the motto of women throughout history.” Sharing her inward mutiny is a joy.
Are We Having Fun Yet?, by Lucy Mangan, Souvenir Press, £16.99
A message from the Editor:
Thank you for reading this article. We're more reliant on your support than ever as the shift in consumer habits brought about by coronavirus impacts our advertisers.
If you haven't already, please consider supporting our trusted, fact-checked journalism by taking out a digital subscription at https://www.scotsman.com/subscriptions