It’s 2007 and Nell, stay-at-home mum to two teenagers, is still stuck in the 1980s with her shapeless Oxfam clothes and her CND pendant and her slightly other-worldly approach to material goods. Husband Trevor is rather more in tune with the times. When Nell inherits her mother’s house Trevor pushes for them to sell up and buy a place in the Home Counties which he proceeds to modernise and extend and to fill with all the 21st century gadgets that Nell has been happily living without.
Poor Nell is a fish out of water, suddenly thrown into a world of interior design, posh friends, sports clubs and casual adultery. Prodded by her new friends she upgrades her wardrobe, cuts her hippy waist length hair and develops a passionate interest in soft furnishings. She even finds herself wondering (and, dear reader, we are wondering too) if Trevor really deserves to be the only man in her life. Perhaps she could get closer to the sexy rich guy who so blatantly propositions her. Or should she stray with the bit of rough who is building her utility room and double garage. (Look, it’s 2007: utility rooms and double garages were still considered cool back then.)
Come the financial crash, the comfortable lifestyle of her new friends is threatened and their sexual peccadillos, alcoholism and eating disorders are suddenly exposed. Will Nell cope? Can she build a new life for herself? Will she find true love? Will she fly or fall?
This is far from your conventional love story. In fact, it’s barely a love story at all. It’s more like Jane Austen for the 21st century. Austen was a social commentator with a sharp and satirical eye, whose love stories conceal a lot of wicked little barbs on the state of the Regency world she lived in. (If you don’t believe me, read them again.) So Gilli Allan’s book is really about Home Counties life and the veneer of glossy success that is pasted over the misery of the relationships that struggle on behind those constantly titivated facades.
I generally hate books like this and at first I did sort of resent the time I was spending on it. Allan’s style, though, draws you in very quickly. Like Nell, I recognised the characters are superficial and unworthy of any emotional effort but, like her, I got sucked in. I had to know what happened. And you, dear reader, will find yourself desperate to know what happened too, so no spoilers. Enjoy the ride.
Highlights include the middle class house party from hell (probably my favourite bit of the book and a reminder that thanks to covid we’ve all been excused some ghastly evenings) and the detailed descriptions of décor. Each of the main characters lives in a very different kind of house. All of them are dripping with money but all are in a diverse style. Just reading about their furnishings immediately places the characters. “Oh yes,” says my beloved of one of them, “That’s the house I’d live in if I had the money.” She’s right of course: it belongs to the most sympathetic character in the book.
Strangely, although most of the characters are in many ways quite ghastly, all have at least some saving graces. Allan’s sharpness skewers but doesn’t then twist the skewer in the wound. The eating disorders, the alcoholism, the eternal lies from almost everybody – they are all the result of deep unhappiness and human weakness. It’s only because I had some sympathy for all of them that I was able to get to the end.
Will Nell navigate this mess with any of her principles intact? Will her marriage survive? Will the kids cope or will they go to the bad? And should she go for a modern fitted kitchen or a more eclectic vintage look? You’ll have to read the book to find out.
Fly or Fall is available on Amazon: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Fly-Fall-Gilli-Allan-ebook/dp/B07ZR9VFFK