Tuesday 12 December 2017

Casey walks tall, but it's down a well-trodden path

Fiction: The Real Liddy James, Anne-Marie Casey, Hodder & Stoughton, pbk, 320 pages, €16.99

High-flying lawyer: the central character in 'The Real Liddy James' is sure to resonate with readers who like no-nonsense, mature heroines
High-flying lawyer: the central character in 'The Real Liddy James' is sure to resonate with readers who like no-nonsense, mature heroines
The Real Liddy James, by Anne-Marie Casey

Meadhbh McGrath

Can women have it all? Anne-Marie Casey's second novel has this well-trodden question at its core, and the message is clear: it's time to stop fooling ourselves.

Our heroine is Liddy James (real name Lydia Mary Murphy), a top Manhattan divorce lawyer and mother to two boys, one of whom she shares custody of with her ex-husband and his new partner.

Liddy specialises in high-profile celebrity splits and 'extreme pre-nups', where couples can specify rules such as compulsory face-lifts and monthly threesomes ahead of their wedding. The 44-year-old juggles 18-hour days with a fractious family life, and enjoys a stunning loft apartment, private car with driver, designer wardrobe and twice-weekly blow-dries.

On the surface, the material is promising. All the signifiers of New York City glamour are laid out, juxtaposed with segments of backstory detailing how Liddy worked tirelessly as the only child of Irish immigrant parents to gain a place at an Ivy League college and eventually become the famously ruthless attorney she is today.

These hurried flashbacks, combined with revelations about the circumstances surrounding her marital breakdown, unfold awkwardly, and suffer from clumsy transitions between the past and present day.

Casey's writing is energetic and immensely readable, but the plotting is so haphazard that it starts to feel rambling. The blurb promises a moment of devastating public humiliation, which doesn't arrive until well past the halfway point, when the meandering plot gives way to an ever-increasingly rapid series of events in the build-up to her spectacular breakdown: her ex-husband's partner Rose struggles with a complicated pregnancy, forcing Liddy's teenage son to move back in with her, money becomes tight, and her Colombian nanny Lucia announces she is moving home after years of dutiful, round-the-clock service.

Casey's portrayal of the high-pressure lives of working mothers is entertaining, yet the text regularly promises insights and observations but skips away before delivering.

As she is being interviewed by the New York Times early on in the novel, Liddy reveals: "I accept I can't do everything and I don't try. I won't ever be one of those frazzled women in dirty sweatpants, making brownies at midnight for a bake sale. I like order, because I am a Virgo. And I guess I don't do guilt."

It's not clear whether 'the real Liddy James' would rather be the one wiping cake batter from her brow, as she seems happy letting others take care of such matters - namely, Rose. Casey devotes substantial portions to Rose's perspective, the one who is up at all hours tending to Liddy's children. She works in the same university English department as her partner, but has lived off Liddy's salary for six years without question, and plans to continue doing so as she contemplates leaving her job to spend more time with her children.

It isn't until Liddy finally gets to Ireland that Casey really hits her stride. The Real Liddy James offers an engaging take on the balancing act of the modern woman, but after 200 pages in the hollow yet dazzling world of super high-end New York life, a charming detour to a secluded cottage in Wicklow is more than welcome.

Within the first few pages, we are introduced to Liddy's courtroom rival Sebastian Stackallan, a textbook example of the Irish rogue, complete with a sloping gait, lilting accent and a rakish smile. The pair went on a disastrous date when they first met, which brewed into mutual dislike. And yet, after so many years of conflict, Stackallan goes suddenly soft on our heroine and offers her the use of his family home in Ireland for the summer.

Thrilled with the chance to escape and recuperate, Liddy immediately jets off with her two boys, where she finally gets a chance to be alone with her kids and think about what she really wants in her professional and personal life. It makes you wish Casey had spent more time on this Irish sojourn to show rather than tell readers how the experience affects Liddy. The story is wrapped up so swiftly and crammed with so much character growth that there's little room for anything to breathe, and we are left without any tangible sense of satisfying change.

Liddy is sure to resonate with readers who like no-nonsense, mature heroines with a bit of bite and a good deal of self-deprecating humour, and the lively pace will suit fans of Marian Keyes and Cecelia Ahern. At a brisk 320 pages, it's an enjoyable if insubstantial read you'll tear through in one sitting.

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