This was published before the sixties swung (1960) and is the story of Jane, an upper middle class girl of 27 who finds herself pregnant and single. She moves out of her father’s house, into an L-shaped room in a dodgy house in a dodgy area.
Her self-awareness and the way she analyses her feelings and those of people around make the novel transcend its period – although she dislikes Toby’s “useless fund of self-knowledge”. At times she wants to punish herself, and telling her father was like a bullfight, “I didn’t want to see the bull killed; I just wanted to know what it would do to me to see it.” There is warmth and humour too, including meeting someone “who wasn’t even the sort of person you could enjoy being rude to.”
It is primarily about different sorts of love, loyalty and friendship, coupled with guilt, fear and thoughts about different sorts of parents and substitute parents. Jane comes to realise she has done everything in the wrong order and is “going to have a baby without ever having understood what love really means”. Later, “I felt the emptiness of fear fill solidly with relief.”
From the first page, it is clear that Jane comes from a “good home” despite, or perhaps because of her detached description of her new and unpleasant surroundings, “It might be rather interesting to talk to one” (prostitute), curtainless windows that make the houses look “like open-eyed corpses” and a damp pavement that “had that sweaty look”.
The analogy of turning a corner in one’s life and the shape of the room could be banal, but is never laboured. I think the main flaw is that most of the major points in the plot are annoyingly easy to spot in advance and although Jane is intelligent and often quite perceptive about people, she doesn’t anticipate any of them. Nevertheless, it generally avoids moralising and sentimentality, even when talking about the “spiritual bleeding” when lovers have to separate too soon after making love.
It is of its time. There is casual homophobia (“disgusting” versus “normal”), anti-semitism, and racism that is sometimes nasty (“an enormous black paw”, inquisitive like a chimpanzee with “an animal smell”) but at other times bordering on the affectionate (the smell was also “oddly comforting and reassuring”). Her initial appointment with a doctor is pretty grim as well and I hope would be equally uncommon now - he even asks about her “acts of fornication”!
Overall, it’s historical fiction that explores universal themes. 1960 is well within living memory (albeit not mine), but this book demonstrates that in many ways, it is VERY long ago.
It's also worth comparing this with Margaret Drabble's The Millstone (a similar situation, written and set at roughly the same time - http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/38680524) and perhaps Ian McEwan's On Chesil Beach (written recently, set in the 60s, and featuring a woman struggling, in a very different way, with sexual intimacy, against the zeitgeist of the "swinging" 60s - http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/23326931)