This book was published in 2006, so it isn’t right up there on the Exclusives New Arrivals shelves. It’s in my book club and I had ignored it for a while because it has a really silly, chick-lit cover and has a shout from Joanna Lumley saying ‘Fabulous’, which didn’t sound very literary. Others in my book club had said it was great, about a woman travelling around the world with her husband, a British diplomat. It sounded a bit boring to me, a kind of personal travelogue (which I can find very irritating and pretentious).
This book is FABULOUS, just as Joanna Lumley said. It is one of the funniest books I’ve read in years. I don’t laugh out loud at books, but this one had me snorting in an embarrassing way. (I was reading lying around the pool at Club Med, where there were lots of people close by me. I think I was the only single person at Club Med and I suspect people started avoiding me after my maniacal laughter by the pool.)
Brigid Keenan was a successful, glamorous London fashion journalist who married a diplomat. She says “…quite how I, a sophisticated Woman’s Editor of the Observer, could ever marry this shy, desert booted adventurer.. .was quite beyond me.” But she did and straight away he got sent to Nepal. She stayed a while as editor at the Observer (it was a new job), but then went to join him in Kathmandu, so giving up her life as a career journalist and becoming a diplomatic wife instead.
And so the book carries on, covering her thirty years as a wife of a diplomat, living in stranger and stranger places, from Nepal to Ghana to Barbados and Kazakhstan. Just as she gets used to one place and develops friends, they move. She arrives at each new country, usually unable to speak to the staff and, because they are the only people she knows initially, she has to develop relationships with them, all of whom are weird and wonderful.
I love her, I’ve decided, because she admits to being useless at most things, such as organising dinner parties or diplomatic get-togethers. She doesn’t know how to fill her days when she arrives in new countries and finds herself phoning her husband ten times a day until he gets irritated. She’s a normal person, a you and a me (I’m presuming you’re like me).
She describes the most wonderful characters, most of them her staff members , and her relationships with them. She describes the friends she makes in each new country; she describes how her daughters have to go off to boarding school in England and how dealing with rebellious teenagers from afar is very difficult.
There is far too much and too many places and characters to go into this book in depth, but I have to just show you a bit of the first page because it still makes me laugh. She describes how she received a letter one day that said, “Dear Ms Keenan, I want to tell you how much I admire your courage and strength and resilience.’ She writes, “It went on in this vein for a while and I was glowing with satisfaction: here at last was someone who understood the sacrifices we ex-pat wives make. But then the author asked for a signed photo, which seemed a touch over the top, even to me, and then he mentioned my ordeal in Beirut, and I realised the letter had been delivered to the wrong Keenan. The praise was intended (quite rightly) for Mr Brian Keenan, the hostage, and not for Ms Brigid Keenan the trailing spouse. Glumly I sent it on to Mr Keenan.”
That sets the tone for the book. I found it very funny, yet also poignant and an intimate account of her life. Reading it was like she was my best friend telling me her story over coffee (or probably gin and tonics).