Author: Shirley Conran
Finished on: 1 July 2016
Where did I get this book: Bought from Wordery following a (very silly) facebook conversation with my friend.
And now for something completely different…
I love an unsnobbish, democratic appreciation of all literature on an equal footing. And looking at the last few reads on the blog, the eclecticism is pleasing me greatly.
It all started with a glass of wine and a visit to facebook.
My friend Cath posted a picture of a trip to a cafe, and her pre-reading age (I hope!) daughter with her nose buried in Lace by Shirley Conran. We got carried away with an amusing conversation reminiscing about amazing 80s bonkbusters that we’d grown up with, and decided that we would simultaneously order and read the classic Savages.
I read this book when I was 13 or 14. My mum was a big fan of books like this. There was a lot of Jilly Cooper; the Jean M Auel Clan Of The Cave Bear series. She would let my sisters and me read them from a young age, so we went straight from learning about sex and relationships from Judy Blume, to full on throbbing member-tastic adult ‘romantic’ fiction. (Alongside the Brontes of course – none of this will set you up for a lifetime of unmet expectations quite like Wuthering Heights). At that age I was still dipping into the occasional Blyton/ Dahl/ Ransome too, whilst also developing a huge love for Stephen King. Eclectic reading choices are not a new thing! I had no idea at that time that I was supposed to appreciate some books more than others; that some were considered ‘better’. I just loved reading them all, and it wouldn’t have occurred to me that Patty learning to kill and cook a goat in the jungle should be any less of a role model to me than Jane Eyre.
It turns out that there is actually almost no sex in Savages, so it doesn’t really qualify as a bonkbuster at all. The subject matter is on the surface quite dark. Five women and a man are cut off from civilisation, and must hide and fend for themselves in hostile jungle. Some of the events in the plot are horrific, although the exaggerated tone and stylised language keeps the reader one step removed from any real empathy with the characters.
And it is hilarious. As if Conran synthesised all the ambition, ostentation and ridiculousness of the 80s into text form. It’s not that it’s bad writing. Conran certainly towers over the likes of Dan Brown in terms of literary competence. If this were written by a man for men, it would probably have a reputation more akin to Raymond Chandler – there are definite similarities in that highly stylised, jarringly exaggerated but very entertaining way with description.
Lorenza had only to watch her mother stroke her six black cats – sinuous, small panthers – to know that she loved with her hands and longed for a grandchild to cuddle.
She’d chosen cream rather than white because, unless it was cotton and could be washed, white was always a dry-cleaning headache. “Roddy, would you mind fetching me some Perrier while I do my face?”
For the first 100 pages or so, it’s frequently a laugh out loud read. But perhaps more worrying is that beyond 100 pages, it no longer seems hilarious . Of course one gets $200 of white flowers delivered to one’s hotel suite every morning, as not even a hotel florist can make white flowers look tasteless. And why would you ever not order champagne to drink at the same time that your husband is having a debilitating asthma attack?
It is all very dated. Written in 1987, the attitudes towards women in work, the relative responsibilities of men and women in bringing up children, the idea that a woman should keep herself attractive so her husband won’t ‘stray’ all feel horribly old-fashioned. Although the truth is it’s probably still not unusual to think these things, it is (thankfully) less acceptable to say them now.
But Savages is not as trite as I was expecting. The ‘moral’ of the story does seem to be that it’s better and more fulfilling to live in squalor and constantly on the verge of death in a jungle, than to lead a vacuous, wealthy existence where everything is done for you. But the relationships between the women are more realistic and nuanced than I had remembered. And it is fun. Really fun, escapist fiction.
On which note, we’ll leave the last word to Conran’s partner in brilliantly ridiculous description, Chandler:
All reading for pleasure is escape, whether it be Greek, mathematics, astronomy, Benedetto Croce or The Diary Of The Forgotten Man. To say otherwise is to be an intellectual snob, and a juvenile in the art of living.