Saturday 22 July 2017

Review: Too Close For Comfort by Clare Dowling

Headline, €14.99, Paperback

Marlene Lying

Clare Dowling may be best known as an actress but she first came to public attention in 1998 when she won a newspaper writing competition.

She went on to train as an actress but she also wrote plays, short films, and children's stories and these days is a script writer for Fair City. Added to this, she has successfully climbed the ranks of popular women's fiction with her feisty 30 to 40-something women in the throes of anything from romance and adoption to fertility treatment and infidelity.

Among the topics she tackles in her seventh novel, Too Close for Comfort, are divorce, HIV, teenage angst and parenthood. In an oversubscribed and competitive genre, it's the way you present them that counts and Dowling presents them with a disarming light-hearted touch and a wry humour which runs throughout the narrative.

Too Close For Comfort finds two sisters grappling with different problems. Ali, a stroppy extrovert, fancies Texan hunk Kyle, gets pregnant by him, marries him, and ends up in Texas with three kids. Emma, a responsible TV producer, has her own apartment in Dublin, keeps an eye on her elderly parents who live nearby and plans to marry her fiance Ryan. So far so good, until it all goes pear-shaped.

Ali's marriage begins to disintegrate and she flees Texas and comes to stay with Emma at which time Emma is having difficulties with her own relationship. It's bad timing, and the apartment groans under the weight of their problems and the energy of three chaotic children.

Can the once close-knit siblings stand the strain?

As Dowling breezes through the minutiae of their daily problems, the dissolution of Ali and Kyle's marriage takes precedence, with many of the best lines going to them.

Ali had "moved on in her head a long time ago" and there had been "hideous cultural, intellectual and emotional differences", and feelings of being "buried alive in a small town" with a man who "never ordered anything other than pizza", where they "taught kids to shoot before they toilet-trained them".

Emma and Ryan in their more subtle way, and for very specific reasons, are being rightly cautious about their future.

Ali and Emma are at odds with each other's lives and decisions. There are angry outbursts, misunderstandings and accusations about divorce, sex, and parental problems.

Dowling's scriptwriting skills show. Her teenager Jack, a typical sullen teen, and his chirpy ever-questioning siblings, seven-year-old Erin and 10- year-old Anto, could be straight out of the TV comedy Outnumbered, but she lifts them off the page.

Emma's workplace is graphically drawn, too. She produces Wake Up Ireland, "Ireland's most popular breakfast television show", and the shenanigans behind the scenes have overtones of the Larry Sanders comedy show. Even the elderly parents could be on standby for One Foot In The Grave.

The novel begins and ends with emails between Ali and Emma, which puts the narrative in perspective, the story enfolding between these mails. There is no real plot, no tricky ending, just a continuous almost philosophical exploring and resolving of problems sewn together with large dollops of humour.

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