Not Quite Nice by Celia Imrie
(Bloomsbury) Pp. 326
This is the passable but not outstanding writing debut from the superb actor, Celia Imrie. It centres on a group of ex-pats living in Bellevue-Sur-Mer, a town near Nice in the South of France. The cast of characters are dealing with marriage break-ups, awful children and failed careers; most are retired and all are attempting to start a new life. In a 2015 Guardian interview, Celia Imrie said, “All the parts I’m writing are parts I’d like to play”, and that is obvious in this mixture of Marigold Hotel and Year in Provence.
The fluffy, comfortable, undemanding style of writing envelops unrealistic, pantomime characters and ludicrous plots. The women: Theresa, Sally, Carol and Faith are practically interchangeable, and the men include a gay couple, an ex-con and current fraudster, and an Australian lothario who refers to the set as “mollycoddled or henpecked men [and] their female jailors” – he’s not far wrong. There are dramatic events but they are all resolved with no lingering ramifications, and everything seems a little too easy. When one of the characters sets up a cooking class to make a little extra money, it all goes wonderfully, and of course the recipes are included, which is all a bit passé.
A resounding theme is that the younger generation are all mercenary and mean, and the older generation struggles to come to terms with the way they have turned out. A couple of the women are bullied mercilessly by their children and are tied to their lives to the exclusion of their own. They are obsessed with their offspring, and this is pointed out to them by those who don’t have any. “You never stop talking about your children. You spend your hours tirelessly maundering on about your tiresome adult offspring. Don’t you realise that there is nothing so boring as other people’s children, except, perhaps, other people’s dreams?” Quite.
It’s unsurprising that Celia Imrie writes about women of a certain age rediscovering their sense of self rather than their obligations to others, and all of these characters have come to this village for a fresh start and to lead the life they want. Of course the towns are picture-perfect and delightful. Her descriptive passages are derivative and it’s depressing to think one can publish any old tosh as a celebrity, whereas this would never be accepted from an unknown author.
There is an element of that smug middle-class Englishness that is inherent to these living-abroad-with-all-the-charming-but-peculiar-foreigners novels. None of them speak French, quite patronisingly expecting the French to speak English to them, and to mix with their ‘own people’. Why don’t they either move somewhere English-speaking or make more of an effort? A few sentences later they are declaiming, “What made Bellevue-Sur-Mer so nice was that it still kept hold of an everyday reality – the majority of shops and restaurants were for locals, not tourists.”Celia Imrie may want to play these people, but they are quite ghastly and snobbish; hard to like and harder to care about.