It’s such a joy to read a work of art by an experienced artist at the top of her skills. Few artists present the aimless ambitions of the middle-class as well as British cartoonist Posy Simmonds does. With Tarara Drewe, which is loosely adapted from Thomas Hardy’s classic Far from the Madding Crowd, Simmonds delivers a memorable and fascinating book.
Beth Hardiman runs a writers’ retreat, Stonefield, on a farm in a small town in rural England. She has been married for 25 years to Nick, who’s a best-selling writer and a serial philanderer. Beth does everything for Nick–managing his public appearances, handling his finances, managing the retreat, even typing Nick’s manuscripts–but Nick just can’t stop his wandering eye.
A gorgeous woman arrives at the next farm over shortly after Nick has been dumped by his most recent paramour. The new woman is Tamara Drewe, and her arrival is literally heralded by bells ringing–or at least alarms going off at the farm. Tarara is beautiful and flirty, and the men at Stonefield quickly fall in love with her. It’s no spoiler to tell you that Nick is one of the men who falls in love with Tamara, but I won’t spoil the wonderful twists and turns of this book by revealing the results of that love.
The genius of Simmonds’s work is in the intimacy in which the reader comes to know all the leading characters. Simmonds does a marvelous job of using overlapping internal monologues to help convey both the literal plot and the characters’ reactions to the plot. She’s careful to show each page from the point of view of a specific character. Nothing is depicted in this book through an objective viewpoint; rather, Simmonds uses blocks of text as internal monologues that infuse each page with the passion of a specific character.
It’s that inner passion that makes this book so compelling. On the surface this story, like many Victorian novels, is a bit of a soap opera. There’s a great deal of unrequited and reciprocated love, angst and anger, and bits of the sort of petty humanity that help to make us all so flawed and interesting.
However, Simmonds is masterful at going beneath the surface–to literally letting readers understand the thoughts and motivations inside her characters’ heads. We know these people well because they open themselves up to the reader in the most naked and open ways they can. The only secrets the characters have are the secrets they refuse to tell themselves.
At the same time, we get to see some sort of objectivity through the way Simmonds draws this book. She has a gorgeous clean line that seems to magically conjure up characters in just a few pen strokes. In those sparse pen strokes, she somehow manages to allow readers to see through the characters’ outward appearances directly into their souls.
We can easily see the complex and conflicting feelings of anger and love that Beth carries around with her for Nick. At the same time, we see far-shallower Nick slide along on the surface of his life–acting like a child who has never had to face the consequences of his actions. The supporting characters also come to magical life under Simmonds’s artwork:
- Writer Glen Larson’s complicated unease with the world.
- Handyman Andy Cobb’s frustrated striving.
- The teens Casey Shaw and Jody Long who represent so much of a wildcard in this book.
In fact, regarding the teens, I found the presentations of the Casey and Jody to be, perhaps, the most fascinating in the book. Simmonds has an uncannily keen eye for the odd emotional abruptness of young teenage girls, and Casey and Jody are perhaps the most complicated characters–as befits a pair of 15-year-olds.
The girls engage in very dangerous, even criminal, behavior as they get sucked into the orbit of the events of Stonefield–but how could they not be sucked into those events? The small town in which they live is so quiet and dull that any events could suck in the bored teenagers like a vortex. The almost operatic events in Tamara Drewe can’t help but suck the girls in–unfortunately with results worthy of an opera.
Simmonds is genius at portraying the banal and almost pathetic aspects of middle class life. This is not a comic with chiseled super-beings fighting for lost virtue. The world of Stonefield is one of frumpy middle-aged people trying to pursue their ephemeral dreams, and often falling short of their goals. Very early in the book there’s a scene in which Beth tries to get dressed up to go to a party but hates how she looks
“I don’t have anything towny to wear and I don’t much care. All the same, I’ve nothing that fits or that disguises the flab I’ve put on. Only a linen suit. In the mirror I loom large, black and white like a killer whale.”
Beth is a powerful woman with high self esteem—but, like many of us, her ego collides with her reality and brings her, depressingly, back to Earth.
Even when she discovers a handwritten journal page from Nick, she has trouble really believing what she reads even though his words are stark and clear
“I don’t want to spoil things for her. She enjoys our life. Finds it rich and full–likes the familiar, the predictable–while I–I find it empty. Dull. Dead. Every morning I wake with the same thought, like a mantra–is this ALL? Is this ALL?”
That’s a lot of angst from a man who has achieved all his professional goals and who has a very happy life.
Of course the teens have plenty of their own angst. Casey and Jody are consumed with thoughts about boys and men, about escaping their town like the stars in the gossip mags they love, and about their parents and families. The girls represent a wild card in this book because they break the circles that the adult characters seem to be stuck in. Unfortunate events would have continued without the girls’ frustration and boredom. The girls lie to themselves and pump themselves up as being more important than they really are until the actually do become the ones who perform the superhuman feat of actually forcing the characters’ lives to move forward.
But that movement comes with a major cost, and Simmonds delivers a fascinating and intense ending that is both shocking and totally appropriate for the book.
Intriguingly, the title character, Tamara, seems the least reflective of any of the characters in the book. Though we literally see her naked, we never see her emotionally naked–or maybe Tamara’s just not as emotionally complex as the other characters. She lives more on the surface and doesn’t present a difference between her inner and outer selves. Perhaps it’s that honesty that the men find so compelling. Like magnetic poles, perhaps her inner calm attracts men inexorably.
I was enraptured in Tamara Drewe in the way that I seldom am with any book. I could not put this book down. Yes, I was drawn into the plot of the book, but I was also drawn in by Simmond’s elegant artwork and by her fascinating characters.