Susan and Norma have been best friends for years, at first thrust together by force of circumstance (a job at The Pin Cushion, a haberdashery shop in 1990s Leicestershire) and then by force of character (neither being particularly inclined to make friends with anyone else). But now, thirty years later, faced with a husband seeking immortality and Norma out of reach on a wave of professional glory, Susan begins to wonder whether she has made the right choices about life, love, work, and, most importantly, friendship.
Above all, there’s the voice: idiosyncratic and droll, bittersweet and clear-eyed ... Though Susan’s narrative style occasionally finds the novel ambling down cul-de-sacs (suburban dogging being one), Stibbe succeeds in depicting a character who truly evolves over the years. It’s not the crisply choreographed stuff of the classic bildungsroman, but instead a more gradual development driven as much by middle-age’s irascibility and impatience as by youthful dreams ... If ever there were a time for reading Stibbe, it’s surely now. Not for nothing was her last novel titled Reasons to Be Cheerful. And yet while comparisons with Alan Bennett, Sue Townsend or even Victoria Wood remain apt, Stibbe applies her own darkly distinctive touches ... Whereas Stibbe’s previous novels confined themselves largely to the past, One Day I Shall Astonish the World takes the reader up to the year 2020, via hashtags, gender-neutral pronouns and, of course, Covid. It’s here that its tone falters, albeit momentarily. It’s a measure of her skill as a writer that she manages to save the novel. After all, her heroines are used to having, for one reason or another, their prospects restricted, so it’s perhaps no surprise that when faced with lockdown, Susan should at last come into her own, breaking into print in her 50s just like Stibbe herself.
Stibbe has been called Sue Townsend’s heir, and it’s easy to see why. There’s the mining of everyday life for humour, her merciless observations on character, her skewering of provincial, lower-middle class Britain, its traditions and small-town tragedies ... This new book has echoes in literary fiction too ... Complementing, and indeed elevating, this conventional storyline is another about Susan and her best friend Norma, a kind of alter ego who seems, right from the outset, to be living Susan’s best life. This interrogation of friendship is Stibbe at her best – quirky, compelling characters and relationships that seem, on the face of it, not to make sense ... The tension between the women doesn’t ever really resolve and readers may feel short-changed in that respect. The action of the novel is diffuse rather than concentrated, a scattergun approach that suits Stibbe’s style of writing, which is dense with humorous observations and full of delightful idiosyncrasy. Like a stand-up comic, she understands the value of repetition, circling back on jokes at the right time and in a new context, giving readers the old one-two punch of wit and insight with remarkable regularity ... Later sections that chart the pandemic at first seem tokenistic, but Stibbe ties it all together in this moving ode to marriage and friendship, to lives unlived, chances untaken, and the great joke of agency in a world where everything can turn upside down in a heartbeat.
Susan’s travails make for pleasant if inessential reading; but if you approach the novel as Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend transposed to the fictional University of Rutland, with the local golf club standing in for the Camorra, bathos takes on an irresistibly comic tinge ... Stibbe retains her discerning eye for the low-level humour of everyday life ... Emotional turmoil is played for laughs rather than Neapolitan histrionics.