We Are All Made of Glue by Marina Lewycka is an intriguing novel. The story is narrated by Georgie Sinclair, a mother of two, whose marriage to Rip is on the rocks. Into her new-found separation comes the elderly Mrs Naomi Shapiro, who lives in Canaan House in abject squalor with seven cats and fights over the red-sticker specials with other pensioners at the local grocery store. When she has a fall and laid-up in hospital, Georgie is called as her next of kin and very soon our narrator, an aspiring chic-lit author, is drawn into the feline world of this old woman and her strange life. No sooner has the old woman been placed into hospital has a pair of untrustworthy real estate agents conspired with social services personnel to try to oust Mrs Shapiro from her home and make a huge profit on the deal in the process as it is ripe for redevelopment. Standing in their way is Georgie, who faces trouble of sorts at home with her teenage son Ben who is developing into a rabid Christian fundamentalist and is spouted wild, internet-sourced theories of coming Armageddon. She feels an unavoidable connection to the old woman, and her nosy interest in her past is where the fun begins.
This is the initial set-up for the story and like Lewycka’s wonderfully funny (and Booker long-listed) debut, A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian (see my review), there is a collection of laughs here too in her typically black and slapstick forms. However, for me this early part of the novel didn’t quite reach the heights of her first. I suspect part of the reason is Georgie’s chic-lit ambitions – we get some very funny drafts of her story entitled The Splattered Heart, but some of the narrative ‘voice’ of the real story comes in the form of this ultra-commercial, chic-lit voice too and made me feel a little queasy. For example: Georgie begins an affair with one of the unscrupulous agents’ more honest business partners, Mr Diabello, whom she describes thus:
His smile made rugged creases in his craggily handsome cheeks. The cleft in his square, manly chin dimpled seductively. His dark and smouldering eyes seemed to gaze right into my soul – or perhaps right into my underwear.
And so on. Maybe this is so over the top that it is meant to be read as a satire on the drivel that Georgie is trying to pen, but it made me cringe rather than laugh.
Where the story excels is when Georgie delves into the history of Mrs Shapiro, for it soon becomes clear that not is all it seems with the old lady. Into the mix is thrown a Palestinian handyman, Mr Ali. He has two teenage Arabic relations who Georgie allows to take up residence in the house with the goal of repairing it after Mrs Shapiro has another fall and is placed into an old persons’ home against her will by the evil social worker, Mrs Goodney. When Mr Ali recognises a photo of a place in Israel on the wall, we have the beginnings of a great story, for both he and Mrs Shapiro have a past from either side of the Jewish-Palestinian divide. In beginning to tell Georgie of his story, Mr Ali says, “Of course, everybody knows about the sufferings of the Jews. … Only suffering of Palestinian people nobody knows.” If this is not enough, we then have an Israeli man, Chaim Shapiro, arrive claiming ownership of the house. What is his relationship to Mrs Shapiro? Does he have a rightful claim to the house? Do any of them?
In the meantime, it is agreed that Chaim and Mrs Shapiro will share the house with the two Arabic youths, despite the mistrust between them, as Georgie noses further and further into the histories of all these characters and the intersections of their histories and peoples.
But can they live together? Thinking of the articles on adhesives she edits to earn an income, Georgie concludes (p359), “If you could just get the human bonding right, maybe the other details – laws boundaries, constitution – would fall into place. It was just a case of finding the right adhesive for the adherends. Mercy. Forgiveness. If only it came in tubes.” To some this will read as a trite over-simplification but Lewycka has dared to dream and find some common-ground where there seems none. Others may dislike it, but I salute it. There is a better, more focussed adhesives metaphor shortly thereafter, when we have Georgie’s musings on adhesive ploymerisation (p381):
[It] depends on sharing. An atom which is short of an electron looks out for another atom that’s got the right sort of electron … then the atom grabs the electron it needs. But no theft or nastiness is involved. The two atoms end up sharing the electron, and that’s what holds all the atoms together in one beautiful long endlessly repeating dance – the beauty of glue!”
The notion of peace is further reinforced when juxtaposed with Georgie’s own family when Ben suffers a seizure and is hospitalised. We find him surrounded by his sister Stella, Rip and Georgie. Stella takes her parents to task for their childish fighting, telling her mother, “Doesn’t matter who started it. We’re fed up of it.”
There are still laughs to be had, including the hilarious end to Canaan House after a BBQ celebrating the DIY-ers’ completion of the ‘penthouse suite’. But we fortunately have a far more solid and meaningful foundation for them than the initial set-up of the novel hinted at. The story is perhaps a little overly indulgent in some of the back-stories – some of Georgie’s interaction with her parents might be superfluous for instance. But most of the seemingly loose ends are tied nicely together by the end. So it is an odd fish this book. There is, I imagine, something in it for everyone, which is both a weakness and strength. It is thoroughly enjoyable and readable, very ‘light’ in terms of literary pretence, perhaps one that women might get more out of in terms of some of the humour. But I can’t help thinking it could have been even better had the focus been just a little sharper.
We Are All Made of Glue by Marina Lewycka
Source: The Bookshelf Rainbow, (aka: Personal Library).