The whole thing is very well crafted. Stibbe will drop the seeds of unwritten chapters into asides – glimpses of a wider comic world in little metonymies. At one point, for instance, Lizzie mentions: “My mother had a series of lodgers over the years. A woman who used to cry if the Beatles came on the radio, and couldn’t use tampons. A doctor who let a mature spider plant die of thirst and had a problem swallowing, and a student who invaded the treehouse.” Further elaboration, as so often in Stibbe, would spoil it altogether... But as things progress the story changes gear, giving a fuller resonance to what could otherwise be taken as a simple assemblage of whimsy and kookiness. I shan’t give away any plot twists, but there is innocence, and the loss of innocence, and the reassertion of a wider and better sort of innocence. The spirit of Victoria Wood, I think, hovers over the way Stibbe generates tender human sympathy through an accumulation of mundane provincial detail.
Nina Stibbe’s “Reasons to Be Cheerful” is so dense with amusing detail that I thought about holding the book upside down to see if any extra funny bits might spill from the creases between the page. Or maybe I’m just a sucker for a novel that opens with a British dental surgeon named JP Wintergreen injecting himself with lignocaine and attempting to pull his own teeth...Events turn a shade darker in the second part, and the momentum flags a bit when the focus shifts from dentistry to driving lessons. But it hardly matters; the pleasure of this novel is in the quirky characters, the effervescent writing and the comedy in just about every line. Brits give good humor; to get me laughing, Stibbe merely has to drop phrases like “steaming cows,” “frozen ditches” or “spaghetti hoops on toast.”
The connected tales of buccal inlay, Ossie wrap dresses, mesial silicate, and “clumsy digging around the gum line”, read like a cross between James Herriot and Nicholas Nickleby, but with fewer rubber gloves and side whiskers. This is a joyfully meandering kind of novel (and the nature of a dentist’s surgery is inherently episodic), but at its heart is a sensitive portrayal of rootedness of a different kind. Stibbe’s comedy probes what it means to become an adult, and how we form our financial, sexual, moral and political selves.
This book has the rare charm of offering us glorious entertainment while also holding up a mirror to what it means to be human. Stibbe’s gift is an ability to spotlight the unique moments of human truth that define a life. With pitch perfect dialogue and acute observations of behaviour, the world she creates feels authentic and honest.
There is a chatty, gossipy quality to the novel, which mimics the tone of a diary but eschews its formal structure, instead preferring short, episodic chapters to pack a comedic punch. At their strongest, these feel like little shots of laughter, but cumulatively the adrenaline wears off, as yet another quirky character or absurd event is thrown into the distracted plot. Things pile up, and the pace drags... Lizzie is a witty, observant guide, but while there are plenty of good gags and needle-sharp quips, the novel is most effective when not trying to be funny.
When something big happens, out of nowhere, towards the end, Lizzie is temperamentally incapable of addressing its magnitude and her comfortably comic voice remains intact, as if that were the most important thing. In an author’s note, Stibbe writes that the “non-availability of certain treatments on the NHS” was a real problem in 1980 and remains so today. Perhaps Reasons to be Cheerful is what it looks like when Stibbe writes a political novel, but it is a funny way to write polemic, or even satire. A stylistic triumph is a stylistic triumph, but this one feels like a pyrrhic victory too.