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INTRODUCTION

It’s 2008, and encouraged by her children (for reasons that may or may not be selfless), fifty–three–year–old Constance Harding starts chronicling her daily life on a brand new blog. As her Internet readers soon learn, Constance seems pretty comfortable. Her husband, Jeffrey, is a successful lawyer and she lives in a well–to–do chocolate box home in suburban Surrey with her beloved parrot Darcy and a full–time maid, Natalia. Upper class by birth, she’s firm in her conservative values and strongly held opinions and she’s often befuddled by modern day behaviors—especially those of her children.

Neither seems to be hewing to her very specific plans for them. Rupert, her twenty–five–year–old son, is an IT professional and lives alone with no apparent romantic prospects—worse, he’s increasingly aloof about his personal life. Sophie, her party–happy, boy–crazy eighteen–year–old daughter, is in her gap year between high school and college, working at an eco lodge in France—or so Constance thinks.

To her bewilderment and despite her best if misguided intentions, Constance can’t seem to help anyone out. Efforts to fix Rupert up with a nice young lady fall flat. She tries arranging a birthday party for him, inviting handpicked, mother–approved candidates, and gives him what she believes are daughter–in–law–attracting gifts, including a puppy. When that fails, she secretly places an ad on a dating service on his behalf with not entirely successful results. For her part, Sophie resists Constance’s urgings to make sensible choices, from boyfriends to footwear. Instead, she parties in Ibiza and lands a role on a reality show called Dungeon.

Meanwhile, Jeffrey’s despicable and slovenly college friend Ivan comes for a visit, the none–too–competent Natalia continues to leave her lingerie around the house, and a recently separated friend from her bell ringing group seems to be taking an amorous interest in Constance. As Constance tries to mend everyone’s lives, her own life grows increasingly shambolic. When her blissful ignorance falls away, she embarks on a series of often sidesplitting, always heartwarming misadventures.

A Surrey State of Affairs is a lighthearted chronicle of family life, generational clashes, and the indignities of middle age. Constance’s cluelessness gets her into one comic dustup after another, yet when times get tough, this memorable character reveals an endearing spirit. Written in a modern–day epistolary style, Radford’s hilarious, colorful debut novel will appeal to fans of Helen Simonson’s bestseller Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand and the novels of Alexander McCall Smith.


ABOUT CERI RADFORD

Ceri Radford

Ceri Radford is a journalist and author who resides near Geneva, Switzerland. She has been called the “new Helen Fielding.” A Surrey State of Affairs is her first novel, which Publishers Weekly described as a “wildly entertaining and amusing debut.”



A CONVERSATION WITH CERI RADFORD

Q. You’ve chosen to tell this story in the most contemporary form of the epistolary novel—a blog. Can you explain how you decided on this narrative format, and what inspired this novel?

The novel actually started life as a blog, so it worked the other round: I began by experimenting with the blog as a narrative form, and then afterward decided to turn it into a novel. I started writing it when I was working as a journalist on the website of The Daily Telegraph, a British national newspaper. It began as a bit of a joke: The idea was to write the fictional diary of a fondly imagined, overly stereotypical reader, and to see if anyone spotted whether or not it was a spoof. I also fed in—with due trepidation—elements of my own mother, who, although very different from Constance, shared certain preoccupations in the marriage and hat–buying arenas. After I’d been writing the blog in an off–the–cuff way for about six months, I got the feeling that Constance had really come alive to me as a character—far more than I originally expected—and I wanted to tell the story in a more structured, coherent way, in a form that people would follow from beginning to end. That’s when I began working on turning the blog posts into a book, which involved a disconcerting amount of retrospective planning and rewriting.

Q. Were there any instances in which the blog felt limiting to you as the author? Were there aspects of the story that were more difficult to tell in this way? Any that were easier?

Yes, it did feel limiting, but I think limitations area very useful thing for an author, especially when you’re starting out. Instead of having to “find my voice”—a daunting prospect—I just imagined Constance’s and borrowed it. The aspects of the story that were perhaps harder to tell from one (mildly deluded) person’s perspective, like capturing Jeffrey’s real feelings, had to be suggested through details, such as the way he opens his newspaper at the dinner table or leaves the lawn to grow. I found it more interesting to tell the story this way, rather than delving into the inner workings of every character’s mind.

Q. Constance is a bit of an unreliable narrator. What are some of the challenges of telling a story from the point of view of a fairly clueless character?

Constance’s unreliability as a narrator was one of my favorite devices for humor in the novel. She is constantly perplexed by the things that are startlingly evident to her readers. Rather than finding this a challenge, it gave me great scope to exploit the gaping chasm between Constance’s understanding of what’s going on around her and the reader’s .

Q. The sympathy the reader feels for Constance is at times surprising, considering how off–putting some of her actions can be. How did you manage to find a balance between her limitations and the more genial aspects of her character? Did her character evolve through revision, or did she come to the page with these complexities?

Constance is, in many respects, a complete nightmare. She is an overbearing, meddling, borderline–xenophobic harridan, and a lot of her views are just plain wrong. The novel is the story of her gaining self–awareness, of discovering what lies beyond the confines of her cozy world, and finally starting to question her deeply held beliefs. She’s not a bad person: Her milder foibles are, I hope, endearing, and the more serious ones (such as her various prejudices) are challenged and subverted as the book goes on. I’m interested in the way a character is shaped by upbringing and background. Constance is an exaggerated version of a certain strand of old–fashioned Britishness, which has its strengths (practicality, humor, a sense of calm in the face of a crisis) along with its weaknesses. I wanted to paint the picture of a code of behavior that chafes uncomfortably against the modern world. I think these ideas were all at the back of my mind when I started the blog, and took shape throughout the whole writing process.

Q. There’s a tradition of comic English novels—from Shamela to Bridget Jones’s Diary. How do you see this book fitting into the genre?

I would feel very proud to be considered a part of that tradition. The English language, with all its nuances of vocabulary and tone, is the perfect vessel for comic fiction and I’ve always loved reading humorous authors. Writing in blog form doesn’t feel like breaking away from the comic confessional genre or doing anything particularly new; to me it just seems like a natural progression. Just as Adrian Mole or Bridget Jones would pour their heart out onto the pages of their diary, so their beleaguered modern counterpart would turn to the murkier waters of the Internet for comfort and understanding.

Q. You do a great job of illuminating classic parent–child conflicts. We get the perspective of Constance as the worried mother while glimpsing her eye–rolling children between the lines of her narration. What insights about these relationships did you gain from writing this book?

I’m not sure if I gained insights from writing the book; it was more the case that my own experience and observations fed into the writing. Most people are familiar with the infuriating mutual incomprehension that often underpins the parent–child relationship, from one perspective or both. Exploring it from the other side—writing as the mother rather than the child—certainly gave me a little more sympathy, retrospectively, for all the times my own mum queried the wisdom of wearing a crop top in November or walking home in the middle of the night.

Q. Some of Constance’s gripes about the modern world seem to be planted for comic effect but others seem quite reasonable. Which of her opinions do you agree with?

Unlike Constance, I send text messages, enjoy shopping in H&M and don’t think that the wearing of cufflinks is a quasi–moral obligation. Where I do agree with her, though, is in her despair at the more exploitative aspects of modern popular culture, like reality TV contests. I’m cheering her on when she describes Dungeon, a thinly fictionalized Big Brother spin–off, as a “cruel cynical freak show allowing non–entities to build careers out of playing strip poker and weeping copiously at the mistreatment that they themselves enthusiastically signed up for.”

Q. This story and its characters are very firmly rooted in English culture. Were there aspects of the book that needed to be changed for international audiences? How do you expect American readers will respond to the novel?

I hope that part of charm of the novel is the feeling of peering into Constance’s quaint, faintly baffling world, and the vocabulary she uses is very much part of that. I had copy–editing queries on British words like wellies (rubber boots), rubbish bin (trash can) and fancy dress (costume): It was a little tour of unforeseen linguistic differences. Deciding which to keep and which to change involved weighing the importance of the British tone versus the importance of clarity. Even if some of the references in the book are culturally specific, I think that all audiences will recognize the picture of an overbearing mother trying to get things right, and almost invariably failing.

Q. Ultimately, Constance must choose between the life she knows and a new life, and like most good endings her decision feels inevitable yet surprising. How did you arrive at this ending? Did you entertain other possibilities?

Yes, definitely: At one point she was going to leave Jeffrey—if I was in her shoes, I certainly would have done. I didn’t arrive at the actual ending as a conscious decision, it was more that as I wrote my way through Constance’s feelings the ending began to take on a certain momentum. It didn’t seem right for Constance to end with some grandiose gesture, like abandoning village life to retrain as a management consultant and live in Manhattan.

Q. What are you working on now? Are there more Constance Harding adventures in the pipeline?

I wouldn’t rule out any more Constance exploits, but for the time being I’m working on a different novel. I’ve swapped my middle–aged narrator for a girl who graduates with high hopes, fails to get a job on the career ladder because of the recession, and ends up working in a ski chalet, picking up after her pampered clients while internally seething with resentment. Over a claustrophobic Christmas week, she gets tangled up in her guests” problems, with life–changing consequences. Like A Surrey State of Affairs, it’s all told in the first person, although this time with a much savvier, spikier narrator.


DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  1. Constance Harding tells us her story through her blog entries. How does this format inform the narrative? Are there things we learn about Constance that we might not learn otherwise?

  2. Constance reveals early on that she's old–fashioned in many ways. How does her belief system help her and how does it hurt her?

  3. Because the reader sees things Constance can't, much of the humor here is at her expense. What moments were funniest for you? Which moments struck a more emotional chord?

  4. This book is set in 2008. Why is the year important to the story? What global events influence Constance's life?

  5. Constance is shocked when her daughter ends up on a reality show, but her husband seems to enjoy watching it. What would your reaction be if you were in a similar situation?

  6. Throughout the narration, the reader is treated to a never–ending stream of Constance's opinions. Which observations of hers did you agree with? Which did you disagree with? Which made you laugh?

  7. For much of the book, Constance seems to fight change at all costs. At what point does she begin to soften? Describe her transformation. Is it for the better or for the worse?

  8. Sophie and Rupert are often the focus of their mother's thoughts and worries. What are her specific worries? What would she like her children to do differently? Are her expectations realistic?

  9. Reality hits Constance pretty hard when she learns the truth about her son and about her husband. How does she respond when she finds out? Was she avoiding these truths or was she genuinely unaware?

  10. Constance must make an important decision at the end of the book. What did you expect her to do? What would you have done in her situation?