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A fantastic debut novel that takes a refreshing look at family, modern life, and the joyless merits of quinoa.
Monday morning can't get any worse for harassed mum-of-four Jools Campbell when, after a frantic school run, she's cornered in the supermarket by pompous celebrity chef Tommy McCoy, who starts criticising the contents of her trolley. Apparently the fact that she doesn't make her own bread or buy organic is tantamount to child abuse. In a hurry and short of patience, she berates McCoy for judging her when she hasn't the time or the money to feed her family in line with his elitist ideals.
Unbeknownst to Jools, her rant has been filmed and immediately goes viral on YouTube, making her a reluctant celebrity overnight. With McCoy determined to discredit her by delving into her personal life, Jools decides it's time to fight her corner in the name of all the fraught mums out there who are fed up with being made to feel bad by food snobs like him. Armed with some fish fingers and her limited cooking repertoire, Jools must negotiate the unfamiliar world of celebrity while staying true to her instincts as a mum.
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I don’t think there’s any way I could be more target for this book as a mum of three kids under 8, struggling on the school run with a wayward labrador and bad timekeeping. So Souper Mum was under a bit of pressure to perform, and I have to say that Kristen Bailey really does hit the spot with it. I wish it was around to read years ago when I had my first child. Everyone should gift it to their next pregnant friend - once they get the hang of feeding their baby whilst drinking tea, eating cake and reading a book they’ll adore this. If balance isn’t their thing, they could always wait for it to be adapted and serialised on Woman’s Hour. Someone out there, make it happen!
It’s the story of mum of four Jools Campbell (a reference to Jamie Oliver’s missus I wonder?) who gets catapulted into viral celebrity and pitted against a shiny (and nasty) media savvy celebrity chef. All this is set against a domestic world of managing a home and family; indulging in carbs and comfort eating; drinking wine and blurting out the inappropriate. And just getting through the day. We encounter so many of my own bugbears and insecurities through the eyes of the Souper Mum - blame culture and parent judging (by parents and non-parents alike), balancing any kind of work with motherhood when you have no funds for childcare, the massive imposter complex that motherhood inspires, and guilt. Lots and lots of guilt.
The story all really comes down to social media: Youtube, Facebook, Twitter, they’re all here. The first person narrative reads like a stream of consciousness, or a long status update. Which is probably why it so quickly puts you, the reader, firmly into Jools Campbell’s corner. It’s the kind of language that I wish I’d come out with when my own parenting has been judged in public. Jools’ outburst going viral could trick you into thinking that this book is about celebrity, but I’d say that at heart Kristen Bailey is more concerned with privacy and intimacy. The ordinary.
There’s an almost Bridget Jonesness to the humour; a big old dollop of Schadenfreude. Jools is an everywoman. She has the best of intentions but she’s one of those people to whom things just ‘happen’. As her situations spiral into the absurd you can’t help but giggle out loud and know that we’re all just a few clicks away from going viral. It’s funny because it’s surreal, but also because it’s true. A version of Jools’ battle to leave the house with her children in tow will have happened to most if not all mothers who read this book. We laugh because our own scenarios just never quite hit the toe-curling farcical heights as in these pages.
But we’re not just in it for the laughs, there are tears too. I’m definitely neither pregnant nor drunk so it must be a compliment to Kristen Bailey’s writing that she can take me from open laughter to cheering to sniffly weeping within a few pages. I see my children’s and sibling’s faces in her characters. I see my marriage in the minutiae of life in the Campbell house. And when Luella says ‘we’ve all got a Richie’ she’s damn right (although I absolutely love how this is NOT a chick lit style “ex-lover comes storming in to relight housewife’s fire” plot). I won’t delve too much into the sub plot of Jools’ estranged mother other than to say that it adds a depth that not only grounds the rest of the action, but also breaks the heart.
Partly because of this sub plot, we see a wide analysis of mothering relationships on display here - the mum of young kids, the mother-in-law, the mother who rejected motherhood, the career mum, the desperate mother-in-waiting, the older sister, the protective friend, the entire gamut of playground mums who we see every day either in passing or to drink wine with. What’s most refreshing is to see the representation of a steady and normal marital relationship - it’s not a love story; there’s no love triangle. That’s not to say there’s no friction, no development. It’s just that it’s believable and heartfelt.
Tommy McCoy and his gruesome wife Kitty are much less believable, but that’s fine. They are cartoon villains lurching from the pages of Hello and OK, sent here to represent all that is hideous and infuriating about societal pressure on mothers - and women in general actually. Luella, on the other hand, is an intriguing character. I’d definitely like to see a sequel delving more into her story, representing as she does the working mother inhabiting multiple lives that don’t intertwine. And then there’s Millie, the voiceless baby whose lengthy inner monologue Jools imagines constantly - “I’m here for you Mum… and I need a new nappy”. Another well observed activity that all mothers have indulged in, another stream of consciousness brilliantly represented.
A lot happens in the physical plot, it is true. But at the same time so much of this book is cerebral. It’s the perpetual and frequently insane thoughts that go through your head when your life is dominated by other people. You have no energy to articulate a single complete concept and yet your brain feels constantly full to bursting with unfinished threads of thoughts and feelings and worries and fantasies. This story portrays it flawlessly.
So, what is the moral lesson of this tale? If I had to take existential inspiration from one line of the text it would be “Maybe it was always about bigger pictures”. But two pieces of practical advice? Always wear a bra when you leave the house, and always shop online!