The Unfortunates follows mustard heiress Poppy Minkel through life as she dodges family obstacles and tries to be everything she wants to be. It begins with the sinking of the Titanic, as young Poppy searches for her father and comes upon their ‘Irish’ instead – the maid who her father was evidently having an affair with.
Books which have child narrators tend to suffer from the same fate – there’s a knowing tone from the author where the child describes what they see without context, leaving the reader to figure out what’s really going on. Sometimes this can work quite well, as in The Time Traveler’s Wife, where the voices of Clare and Henry are distinct from their adult selves but equally recognisable. Luckily Poppy isn’t a child for very long, as the story skips through her teens and early twenties, including WWI in the process.
She gets married, has children, moves from Paris to England and back to America in a relatively short space of time and without a lot of hassle – although by the time she comes back it’s the middle of WWII, she’s only really affected because she can no longer fly her bi-plane. This is another section of the book where you read between the not very subtle lines – Poppy is Jewish and so she finances the escape of a number of Jews from Paris, with the help of her artist friend. It’s frustrating because Poppy is not stupid – she has a number of businesses throughout the book and knows what she wants in other places, and yet she seems to be wilfully ignorant of huge issues, such as the German occupation. In one scene she re-visits the hotel she stayed in in Paris in order to re-claim her furs, left twenty years before.
Perhaps I’m missing the point – just because Poppy seems to care only for her furs and hats, does not mean she doesn’t care. There’s a fine line in writing characters, a balancing act where you want your reader to get to know your cast, without having their peccadilloes forced down your throat at every opportunity or conversely, knowing only what they say and not what they feel. Personally, I feel that Poppy was not written sympathetically enough. Parts of her story were tragic and heart breaking, but as a reader I tend to follow the character’s lead and as she soldiered on with her candelabra and boots, so did I.
I’ve read a couple of Laurie Graham books (the other being Gone with the Windsors) and I find that there’s a knowing, slightly smug humour which revolves around political in jokes, which I don’t generally get as my knowledge of early 20th century royalty/American presidents isn’t great. Maybe that’s my fault for knowing more about Katie Price’s family than our Queen’s, but either way I’m not keen on feeling like I’m missing out on a book because I don’t get the references.
I understand why people like this and other Laurie Graham’s but for me she’s not a favourite author.