Imperfect Women is a character study of three women – Eleanor, Nancy, and Mary – who met at university thirty years ago and have been best friends ever since. None of their lives have gone in the direction they envisaged, and none of them are particularly happy. The novel is split into thirds – Eleanor’s point of view, then Nancy’s, then Mary’s – and we get to know each woman from their own perspective and the perspective of those closest to them. Naturally, these differ significantly. They’re all flawed, brilliantly human characters, and whilst I disagree with many of their actions I love how real they always feel.
The novel starts with Eleanor receiving a phone call from Nancy’s husband, Robert. Eleanor has always been close to Nancy’s family – she has no partner or children of her own, choosing to focus on her career – but receiving a phone call at 4am is still unusual. Robert is concerned as Nancy has not returned home after having dinner with Eleanor. Eleanor drives to Robert’s house and confesses that Nancy has been having an affair and went to meet her lover after the dinner. Robert is shocked – and shock turns to horror when the police suddenly arrive. Nancy’s body has been found by the river in Hammersmith, and suddenly the bubble of normality which Eleanor’s been living in for the past thirty years shatters. Nancy’s death sets in motion a chain of events which expose every crack in Eleanor, Nancy, and Mary’s lives – and by extension, the lives of those closest to them.
This is a character study, so I don’t want to give too much away about these characters. I adore them, even though on paper they might not always seem pleasant. At first, they seem like three stereotypes – Eleanor, the woman who sacrificed everything else for her career; Nancy, the woman who married into money and never had enough to be satisfied; Mary, the woman who gave everything up to raise her children and doesn’t know who she is without them any more – but as the story unfolds they become so much more. Eleanor is probably my favourite, possibly because – as a twenty-something student – I find her easiest to relate to, but Nancy and Mary are also captivating in a different way. Their lives are car crashes, but you can’t look away.
“Women on this world are expected to conform, though it doesn’t seem like that any more. You can be many things in this life, but a dissatisfied woman isn’t one of them.”
The supporting cast – Nancy’s husband Robert and daughter Zara, Eleanor’s elderly neighbour Irena, and Mary’s husband Howard and children Marcus, Maisie, and Millie – have varying degrees of importance depending on the perspective at the time. Robert and Howard especially get a great deal of screen time, and it’s fascinating to see how each character views them differently. I dislike both of them – Howard especially – but given the lens through which they are viewed this is almost inevitable. In contrast, I had a huge amount of sympathy for Marcus – his life is a disaster, but at heart he’s a vulnerable child who truly cares about those around him, which is more than can be said for most of the cast.
“We should learn to find comfort in the fact that everyone’s got their own sadnesses.”
I find it much harder to discover contemporaries that I’ll love than I do science fiction and fantasy novels – and on paper, a novel about three women in their fifties undergoing mid-life crises shouldn’t appeal to me, but for whatever reason I loved this. The writing is excellent, and the characters are so believable you wouldn’t question meeting them on the street. Every terrible decision they make seems perfectly justifiable in their eyes, and you can believe that events would actually unfold this way in real life.
Overall, this was an excellent book. I’d recommend it to anyone who loves a character-driven story.
Published by Orion
Hardback: 20th August 2020