Review: Reasons to be Cheerful by Nina Stibbe

With everything going on at the moment, it felt necessary to take a break from my current read (The Uninhabitable Earth) for something a little more light-hearted! Reasons to be Cheerful by Nina Stibbe is the perfect way to escape the coronavirus and head back in time to Leicester in the 1980s.

Winner of 2019’s Wodehouse Prize for Comic Fiction, Reasons to be Cheerful is actually the third instalment to follow the life of Lizzie Vogel and her quirky family. This time she is 18 years old and moving to ‘the big smoke’, to work as a dental assistant for a racist misogynist who makes her hold his cigarette to his mouth every lunch break, uses her toilet for number twos and is obsessed with trying to join the Freemasons.

Stibbe’s novels are semi-autobiographical (she really did work in a dentist’s office), with great attention to period detail. It honestly feels like a book written in the 1980s and not just last year, thanks to the tiny details Stibbe has painstakingly researched.

Reasons to be Cheerful is a darkly comical account of a teenager learning how to be an adult in a world full of strange characters: the vicar’s wife, who is teaching her to drive but falls asleep five minutes into the lessons; her mother who is writing a nonsensical science fiction novel while gently harassing the editor at Faber and Faber; and her co-worker whose greatest loves are her collection of cacti and her newly acquired salad spinner (the hottest new invention in kitchenware).

As well as being laugh-out-loud funny, the book also touches on some of the very real issues of the time. Such as dentists in the 1980s being predominately white men with full control over who they offered free NHS treatment to, often leading to the less privileged being forced into paying for private treatment or to go without. And while women had more rights than in the decades before, they were still forced into unskilled roles due to industries largely controlled by men, the expectation to give up a career to bear children and the general misconception that women were less skilled, less intelligent and less worthy of a seat at the table.

Stibbe still manages to keep the plot light-hearted, thanks to her specialty in observational humour. Her writing is cathartic and amusing and gives us the opportunity to chuckle over life’s little absurdities, at a time when we most need a break from the present day.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5. You don’t need to have read the first two books in this trilogy to enjoy the story, but I’m pretty sure you’ll want to track them down after reading this book!

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