Selfish Jean: a story about a woman who longs for a child and a child who longs for a mother who cares
Cate Sweeney is an accomplished writer who just happens to be a locum pharmacist. Up until now, Cate has been a playwright and short story writer (some of which have appeared on the pages of C+D), but now she has had her first novel, Selfish Jean, published.
The selfish Jean in question is a frustrated art photographer who works in a museum, but whose real unhappiness seems to lie in her desperate need to have a child. Her biological clock is ticking away - she is nearly 40 - and fertility treatment has proved unsuccessful: the last remaining option is adoption.
With her husband Sam, she has been enduring the long and painful series of pre-adoption interviews with their social worker Paul. The strain of dealing with her mother's desire to have a grandchild and then the reawakening of a friendship with a university friend who has started a family trigger Jean's erratic and misjudged behaviour. Emotions overtake judgement and she ends up hurting more people than she expects.
In parallel with this is a story about a young boy, Levi, in care because his mother is an alcoholic. He has no happy experiences of being fostered and dreams of being reunited with his mum and his sister. Unfortunately for him, when he and his sister are returned to their mother's custody, life only gets worse. It seems there can be no happy ending for Levi who just wants to be loved and happy with his family.
Hmm. Sounds pretty grim, doesn't it? But it's not. The story starts with humour - the fretting granny wannabe, the way in which catty thoughts blurt out when not intended, workplace politics - and contains some worrying truths: "You don't actually have to like children to want them, do you?"
Humour continues to punctuate the novel: as Jean meets her social worker at a cafe, a bored couple at the next table go silent as they tune in to the far more interesting discussion about adoption. Jean reacts to the eavesdroppers with a pithy: "If you've missed anything, I can send you a DVD in the post."
But above all, the book contains a strong human narrative. Cate's strength in writing dialogue for the stage means that the book is deceptively easy to read, but this is what makes the story so much more powerful. It is very easy to believe her characters, and writing from the perspective of Jean in a sea of self-doubt, and about Levi, who as a child has to find ways to protect himself, we gain an insight into the thought processes involved.
This intelligent book's title echoes that of Richard Dawkins' Selfish Gene, and like two strands of the double helix, you wonder how Cate Sweeney's two tales will work together and what the outcome will be.
The book presents an interesting debate about the `right' of women in this scientifically enhanced day and age to have children come what may, and to compare it to what mother nature may bestow via the gene pool. It is difficult not to think about the ethics involved and what role medicine should have in this.
It also flags up how in this western world where so many needs have been met, the human condition is such that it can never be satiated. It also doesn't shy away from the way in which humans debase themselves, reverting to something we perhaps once were in some earlier evolutionary form. Is civilisation really meant to tolerate the inhumanity of child abuse or even neglect?
It is a moving story that doesn't really have a happy ending, and is a well told account of desperate people's lives: the woman who longs to have a child and the child who longs to have a normal childhood. Both want the love and reassurance that a family should bring.
There is a current fashion for `chick lit'. Despite the book cover's appearance, this is most definitely not that. Look elsewhere if you want something uplifting. But if you want to reflect on the human condition and to read something that makes you think about wanting and belonging and what those values mean in today's society, this book is well worth reading.
The publisher Macmillan has put the book out under its New Writing imprint, endorsing Cate's potential, and it was pleasing to learn that the Waterstone's in Trafalgar Square, London, has featured the book in a display. In addition, at the time of writing this review seven out of seven reviewers on Amazon have given the book a five star rating. All this augurs well for Cate's future as a novelist.
Selfish Jean by Cate Sweeney
Macmillan New Writing
ISBN 0230 001858 (hardback) 218 pp, #12.99.
Copyright: CMP Information Ltd.