Hodder and Stoughton
The American dream often goes like this: Immigrant parents work their fingers to the bone to provide security and a future for their children. Said children grow up wishing to make said parents’ proud, working equally as hard as them and twice as hard as their peers to make it to the top in fields like medicine and law. Then their darling offspring are brought into a privileged world in which they haven’t a care, and set about undoing all their parents and grandparent’s good, hard work. At the top of her career as a high-flying divorce lawyer, dubbed The Shark by her colleagues and adversaries, Liddy James has it all figured out. Her childhood as the daughter of Irish immigrant parents is far in the past, and now she can afford to work at a cut-throat job she loves while living her best life supporting her ex-husband, his partner and her two sons, and gloat about it. Liddy James has it all.
Except of course she hasn’t. The Shark has boundaries as tall, thick and unyielding as Donald Trump’s proposed Mexican border wall, and all her outward bravado and take-no-prisoners attitude covers a multitude of insecurities. Her discomfort about the working-class life she left behind, her role as main breadwinner for two families and pressure from her boss, ex and kids to have all the answers are threatening to break free from her icy, controlled demeanour, and it they do it won’t be just her who feels the avalanching effect.
I picked up The Real Liddy James for one of the worst reasons you can; I was attracted by the cover. I was after a glossy, easy read that would throw up the required conflict or two, humorous altercation or three and eventual cliché driven but ultimately satisfying conclusion. That’s not exactly what I got. I don’t know what this book wants to be. I don’t think it knows what it wants to be. On the one hand you do get a lot of the facets of your average chick lit novel; a flawed but strong willed heroine who doesn’t realise how beautiful she is without all that damn make-up, two potential love interests (team ex-husband or sexy opposing counsel) and a long-held indiscretion that hasn’t been resolved but which is more or the less the catalyst for an earth-shattering event, which is just the re-set our plucky protagonist needs. But on the other are quite interesting observations and themes, such as the role of the ex-husband’s nice new partner, how to successfully co-parent after divorce and how to deal with unexpected, later in life pregnancy.
Liddy herself is our main anchor throughout the story, much of it is written from her perspective, but her professor ex’s girlfriend Rose provides another angle. She is the same age as Liddy but younger than her partner, and works alongside him as a not too ambitious lecturer in women’s literature. At a conflicted crossroads in her life she cares very much about Liddy and Peter’s shared son but desperately wants one of her own. She enjoys her job but has little or no interest in publishing or applying for a more secure position. She is outwardly quite timid and unassuming, a bookish academic but inwardly there is something fiercer, sharper that is straining to emerge. She is by far the most engaging and well-written character, and it’s a pity there’s not more of her, and that she is ultimately side-lined. Her role as a fully fledged character in Liddy’s story isn’t really that big, but her own story, with Liddy’s influence could have been a much more interesting one.
The elements of chick-lit do The Real Liddy James a dis-service. There is something smarter, more complicated lurking beneath the somewhat forced lighter outer shell and a lot of the fluff could have been shed to reveal a great, well-observed work about modern family life, particularly the changing roles of women and the struggle of second and third generation immigrants to come to terms with their identity. Like Liddy James, the real story lies somewhere deeper, and could do with being told.
Aoife B. Burke
First published in The Tuam Herald on 12th October 2016