Nina Stibbe’s Reasons to Be Cheerful is so dense with amusing detail that I thought about holding the book upside down to see if any extra funny bits might spill from the creases between the page ... Events turn a shade darker in the second part, and the momentum flags a bit when the focus shifts from dentistry to driving lessons. But it hardly matters; the pleasure of this novel is in the quirky characters, the effervescent writing and the comedy in just about every line.
The whole thing is very well crafted. Stibbe will drop the seeds of unwritten chapters into asides – glimpses of a wider comic world in little metonymies ... The book is set in 1980, and the period detail is exact and remorseless without ever quite shading into camp or kitsch ... as things progress the story changes gear, giving a fuller resonance to what could otherwise be taken as a simple assemblage of whimsy and kookiness ... The spirit of Victoria Wood, I think, hovers over the way Stibbe generates tender human sympathy through an accumulation of mundane provincial detail.
... wonderfully entertaining ... Ms. Stibbe’s brand of humor is refreshingly sweet and light-fingered even when events turn tragic, though it’s also steeped in its time and place, so some of the jokes will be lost on non-British readers who haven’t heard of Kevin Keegan or Sue Arnold. No familiarity with Lizzie’s previous adventures is required to enjoy Reasons to Be Cheerful, however. As an entry point into Ms. Stibbe’s growing epic of idiosyncratic provincial youth—her Vogeliad—it works just fine.
If readers aren’t familiar with the first two Vogel novels, it is still entirely possible to read Reasons to Be Cheerful as a standalone, but for those who have followed the family’s previous misadventures in life, it is wonderful to see how their story has evolved. In particular, it is so pleasing to observe the development of the daughter of the family, and star of Paradise Lodge, the incomparable Lizzie Vogel ... What follows is a darkly comic account of one hapless teenager’s coming of age experiences that, although uniquely specific to her particular tiny patch of the world, still remain true to the universal adolescent experience ... Stibbe’s own love for her character radiates from the page. As a consequence, it always feels as if we are empathizing with her plight, laughing with her, and never at her ... Adele’s character is a comic creation with profound depth; her examination of what it means to be a mother, and a woman, while always raucous in its delivery, is nevertheless very moving. She offers a timely portrayal of questions that many women in the generations that followed her still face. As with all great comedy, amid the laughter there are beautifully drawn poignant moments that capture the sometimes bittersweet, often heartbreaking, realities of life ... Stibbe is masterful in her execution.
Stibbe...is a pitch-perfect observer: clever, confiding, sublimely weird; and there’s unexpected resonance, too, in the story’s final, bittersweet pages. Her Reasons might not have much reason, but it has a lot of heart.
Nina Stibbe...with this third novel, Reasons To Be Cheerful...provides exactly what its title suggests ... Stibbe establishes herself as England’s greatest living comic novelist. How? It’s difficult to explain, but...what Stibbe does...is just funny ... In years to come there’ll undoubtedly be PhD students writing theses on 'Nina Stibbe and the Politics of 21st century English Humor.'
There is a chatty, gossipy quality to the novel, which mimics the tone of a diary but eschews its formal structure, instead preferring short, episodic chapters to pack a comedic punch. At their strongest, these feel like little shots of laughter, but cumulatively the adrenaline wears off, as yet another quirky character or absurd event is thrown into the distracted plot. Things pile up, and the pace drags ... Lizzie is a witty, observant guide, but while there are plenty of good gags and needle-sharp quips, the novel is most effective when not trying to be funny. A chaste photograph taken with Andy during a day trip to London; a ‘heartbreaking’ visit to her ‘father’s family home’ and the emotional assault of ‘his new children’s intimacy with him’: in such scenes, Lizzie’s comic guard drops and we catch a tender glimpse of a deeper inner world. In Reasons to be Cheerful, as in life, the best moments rarely involve a dentist.
First, let’s address Reasons to be Cheerful’s tone...It is unique. Arch, knowing, naive, faux-naif, humble yet self-regarding, candid yet prim, judgmental yet full of heart. It has been compared to Sue Townsend’s voice, but I could haul in Alan Bennett, Barbara Pym and even Jane Austen as influences without nailing it. Plain adorable to some, for me its mannered chattiness would be intolerable were the jokes not so good ... [Stibbe] is a tremendous observer ... For all that, it is often unclear what the point of her humour is ... Lizzie’s inability to distinguish between the trivial and the important may explain the novel’s great weakness. And here we come to it: it is its plotting, or, rather, its lack of plot ... When something big happens, out of nowhere, towards the end, Lizzie is temperamentally incapable of addressing its magnitude and her comfortably comic voice remains intact, as if that were the most important thing ... Perhaps Reasons to be Cheerfulis what it looks like when Stibbe writes a political novel, but it is a funny way to write polemic, or even satire. A stylistic triumph is a stylistic triumph, but this one feels like a pyrrhic victory too.
Stibbe, a master of low-key observation and throwaway punchlines, captures Lizzie’s romantic uncertainty and open, sometimes-wounded heart while also pointing up the intermittent absurdity and restrictions of life for women in provincial England in the early 1980s ... An idiosyncratic, bittersweet coming-of-age tale that certainly justifies its title.