As she did in her previous book, Gemma Bovery, Posy Simmonds here sets the plot of a classic novel in the modern day. This time, it’s Far From the Madding Crowd (another one I haven’t read).
Glen Larson, an American professor (although he doesn’t really sound like one), has come to Stonefield, a country retreat for writers. He’s aspiring to create a novel. Beth runs the place while her husband Nicholas works on his latest mystery. She’s a wonderful, helpful partner, and he’s a popular author — only he’s been having an affair that the whole group soon knows about. Unlike Gemma, Beth really enjoys her life in the country — even the 5 AM wakeups — which translates into the good care she takes of everyone.
Andy, their gardener, is a former farmboy whose father lost the family place due to debt. The deceased owner’s daughter, just returned to the area, is the Tamara of the title. She wants to live on the farm, have Andy take care of things, and write.
Tamara, formerly grumpy and “difficult”, is now a London gossip columnist who’s remade herself through plastic surgery. She even got a column out of her own nose job. She enters the group of dowdy, covered-up Brits and fat American as though she were from California: all flowing hair and big white smile, cut-off shorts and white tank top, bare feet and showing plenty of skin. She leaves desire and jealousy in her wake. She’s learned that playing up her appearance will get her what she couldn’t have with intelligence and hard work: attention.
She’s also very good at collecting secrets, as she charms those around her. When she starts dating a former rock star, she becomes a suitable subject for her own column. They disrupt the quiet locality with music and late hours. Andy, who thought he’d come to care for Tamara, is dismayed, since he’s still doing the maintenance and so can’t escape their displays.
Tamara Drewe has a similar format to the previous book, with chunks of text narration, but here there’s more illustration, and in color, too, which makes me prefer it. Plus, the characters are more balanced, more real to me. They’re drawn realistically, too, with different sizes, making Tamara’s artificial beauty all the more believable as a life-changing presence.
The subtle touches are still in place, with different fonts for different character voices and all the expressions in the art that make them feel real. The color allows for greater emphasis, as with the touches of red that draw the reader’s eye to particular characters or important items, while memory or fantasy sequences are all over pale blue. I love the way Simmonds incorporates food in memories or settings — that’s the way real people talk of things, over meals, or remember key moments, though smell and taste. Late in the book, a homeowner sends tea out to photographers camped by the front gate, a particularly British touch, to take care of those making life annoying.
Although relatively well-off, definitely middle class, with the ability to choose lives of the mind, everyone’s unhappy. They want things they’re not likely to get: Beth, to stop being worried about her husband; Glen, the novel to save his career; Andy, Tamara; Tamara, a career as a writer, not just a journalist. So I was surprised to see, by the end, most everyone had a happy ending. That’s a pleasant change of pace from Gemma Bovery.
I suspect the late introduction of two neighborhood teen girls, who incite all kinds of trouble-making incidents, and the resulting sprawl of the story, stems from two things: the original novel, which gives this graphic novel more main characters and greater reach than many others, and the original serialization of the project, one page a week for The Guardian. The two seem a bit exaggerated, but they point out an important class distinction. It’s a luxury to be worried about affairs and bad choices when others have no future whatsoever.