Head over Heels by Felicity Price
Kiwi women novelists have been immensely productive of late – writers from Jenny Pattrick to Paddy Richardson, Nicky Pellegrino, Laurence Fearnley, Sarah-Kate Lynch and Emily Perkins have all published some of their best work yet in the past couple of years, and have been deservedly lauded for it.
Christchurch’s Felicity Price has been beavering away with a somewhat lower profile than most of the aforementioned, but possibly that’s because she’s had a lot on: in addition to publishing novels, of which Head over Heels is her sixth (and the third to star Penny Rushmore), she wrote the bestselling John Britten biography Dare to Dream and runs a successful public relations agency with her husband.
She shares this propensity for busy-ness with her heroine Penny, who lives in an unnamed New Zealand city and in the dead centre of the maelstrom of a frantic career (as the head of a PR agency), two teenagers, elderly parents, and a new boyfriend intent on whisking her off on his Turkish research expedition.
Meanwhile, Penny’s ex-husband Steve is living a life of serenity with Jacinta, the nubile young woman for whom he abandoned his marriage a couple of years earlier. Penny is emphatically not okay with this, and when the news comes, via daughter Charlotte, that Jacinta is pregnant, Penny turns to her girlfriends, collectively known as the Ladies’ Philosophical Society, for succour and a great deal of wine.
On the heels of this wounding information, Penny learns that Charlotte is dating her university lecturer, and that her ailing mother, suffering from dementia in a rest home, is engaged in what looks like a raging affair with a fellow patient. (Penny and her mortified father are summoned for a candid chat with staff after the geriatric twosome are discovered in a linen cupboard.)
Another sub-plot involves Penny’s irresponsible and self-obsessed sister Stephanie, a writer who engages in the latest of many extra-marital escapades while overseas to promote her latest book. This affair is different, though – her prey is an aging British rock star, which attracts the attention of paparazzi, and when Stephanie begs her sister for help in managing the media to save her reputation, Penny starts to ponder whether she’s prepared to keep turning herself inside out for other people.
Seeking respite, Penny departs on what she envisages will be a sun-soaked and relaxed escape to Turkey with newish boyfriend Simon. Everyone survives the ensuing terrorist attack unscathed except for Simon, who returns from the Med with rather more baggage than he intended . . .
Be assured that the above merely touches on the plots and sub-plots that crowd Head over Heels – in fact, the novel would have been well-served by a slightly heavier hand in the editorial department, for reasons of both pace and accuracy. A running joke involving the family dog goes on far too long, while a reference to ‘Jimmy’ Hendrix had me wincing.
Head over Heels is no less a funny and absorbing read for these flaws. I am certain that the somewhat bawdy conversations had between the members of the Ladies’ Philosophical are entirely autobiographical, and the climactic scene of a wake in Penny’s home, neatly ending the story arc of each character, is finely constructed and remarkably moving. Penny Rushmore is not done yet.
This review was previously published on Coast.co.nz.
Reviewer: Stephanie Jones
Published by Penguin