It’s clear that we’re in capable hands: Vickers’ prose is smooth, her dialogue convincing, her plotting clear and not at all convoluted — if anything, events all transpire a little too methodically. In the novel’s untroubled shifts between its three different narrative strands, Grandmothers makes for absorbing, undemanding reading. There’s nothing here that elevates it though, none of the interesting elements, for example, that made Vickers’ 2018 novel The Librarian so quietly subversive.
In Vickers’s world, grandparents take precedence over parents, and grandmothers fill the void of their own maternal failings with an excessive involvement in their grandchildren’s lives. No parent in the novel is capable of a healthy relationship with their child, making for a rather bleak – and one-note – portrayal of extended family life. As with her previous novels, Vickers has a keen ear for dialogue and there are moments of wry humour. But while some important issues are explored here – loneliness, regret, intergenerational discord – the novel lacks the emotional breadth and narrative texture of a nuanced, engaging read.
There are just one or two moments, always with Nan, where a pinch of something more powerful spices up the narrative. But these moments vanish quickly, and for the main part the novel remains cosy. There is a rose-tinted view of the grandchildren as innocent and adorable. But this fond portrayal is uneven — I’m not sure many 12-year-old girls today would dream of falling in love with a Parisian saxophonist. The grandmothers also feel as if they have been given quirks to distinguish them.
Vickers, probably best known for her novel Miss Garnet’s Angel, worked for many years as a Jungian psychotherapist and, although her writing is blessedly free of psychobabble, her background is evident in the care with which she reveals her characters’ histories. Nan has made peace with the fact that her husband was gay, but she is hiding something else. Minna has never recovered from her doomed affair with a married man and Blanche struggles with the guilt of never having loved her dull husband.
This is a novel of muted drama and quiet epiphanies, but it is also moving, funny and poignant. Most of the adult relationships are dysfunctional: the older women struggle to communicate with their grown-up children, while during the course of the novel the marriage of Rose’s parents collapses. The most solid bonds are those between the children and their grandparents. Vickers writes that ‘Grandmothers had no rights, or none that had any influence over action … But a grandmother could care … every bit as deeply as a mother for a child.’ We are used to reading about the trials and tribulations of the middle generation, overwhelmed by having to care simultaneously for their children and their own parents, but rarely do novels focus on the unique connections between grandparents and grandchildren. Vickers provides a perceptive and warm-hearted take on how important these relationships are for both the old and the young.