Saturday, 27 March 2010

Commune in the country

Rosie Thomas is a brilliant storyteller. Whether she’s writing about tricky teenagers or irascible grandparents, she has the knack of creating stories that resonate with her readers’ lives.

Now, in Lovers and Newcomers, she turns her attention to the trials and tribulations of turning 60.

A disparate group of friends - two couples, a glamorous widow and a gay man - have known each other since they were wild students in the Sixties. In those days they assumed they’d stay young and beautiful forever and joked that if they ever grew old they’d all move into a “fabulous, outrageous commune.”

Forty years on, they recklessly decide to give the commune idea a go. Desperate to stave off the unedifying prospect of old age, newly-widowed Miranda invites her friends to live in her rambling Norfolk mansion.

Penniless bohemians Selwyn and Polly work all hours to renovate a tumbledown barn adjacent to Miranda’s house, well-to-do lawyer Amos and his elegant wife Katherine draw up plans for a swanky house next door and set designer Colin, who’s mourning the death of his lover Stephen, flits between London, New York and the country.

The six throw themselves wholeheartedly into building new lives. The word “old” is banned (anyone who utters it has to pay a fine) and they laugh, dance, drink too much and behave badly – just like the good old days.

Except this time round, they discover that life is more complicated and they can’t simply put the clock back. Selwyn still carryies a torch for Miranda, Amos explodes with fury when an archaeological discovery threatens both his building work and his marriage and Polly worries how she’s going to make ends meet. As Katherine astutely observes: “It isn’t until you come to live in each other’s pockets like this that you start to see all the cracks.”

As always, Thomas weaves her characters’ stories together with such skill and warmth that you really care about them. She’s equally adept at conveying the hopes and fears of the younger generation too. At 25, Polly’s twin daughters look glossy and sophisticated - but they admit to feeling lost and abandoned when their parents sell the family home and move to the country.

The archaeological strand to the story isn’t as compelling as the emotional heart of the book, but once again Thomas has produced a sure-fire winner.

Lovers and Newcomers by Rosie Thomas. Published by HarperCollins, £12.99.

Emma's rating - ****

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