My guest blogger today is the absolutely hilarious Ellen Hawley. Her blog, Notes From the UK, explores the pitfalls awaiting American expats in the UK struggling to learn the foreign language we supposedly grew up speaking.
Ellen Hawley is a fiction writer and blogger. Her novels are The Divorce Diet (Kensington Books), Open Line (Coffee House Press), and Trip Sheets (Milkweed Editions). She has worked as an editor, a radio talk show host, a cab driver, a waitress, a janitor, an assembler, a file clerk, and for four fun-filled hours a receptionist.
**Special treat! After you learn all about a proper British seaside holiday, scroll down for a review of The Divorce Diet.**
Intercultural explorations in a British beach town, by guest blogger Ellen Hawley
At the height of the British summer, my partner and I went to Swanage, a beachy resort town on England’s south coast.
That sounds simple, but we’re Americans living in Britain, so nothing stays simple for long. Let me pick that sentence apart.
The height of the British summer
Summer means the kids are out of school. So far, so much like back in the U.S. If you go to a resort town, you find parents taking the kids on vacation. Or as the parents we were rubbing elbows with in Swanage would say, on holiday.Call it holiday or vacation, though, the experience is the same. Sometimes it’s a stretch of unmeasured days when the kinks lift out of your muscles and your brain and sometimes it’s a frantic effort to experience a little freedom before work and school and bills and alarm clocks take your life over again.
You kids, stop your whining and have fun.
I say that because starting at 3 pm, kids who were under the age of six started having meltdowns. Because they were tired. Because they couldn’t have another ice cream. Because the one they just got fell in the sand. Because their brother or sister or parent had [fill in the blank]. Or because they hadn’t [fill in the blank]. Because having fun had worn them out for reasons that are too deep to understand when you’re five. Because it was that time of day.
One girl wailed, “Why is everybody crying?”
It’s as good a reason to cry as any other.
But that could be any developed country’s summer. What made it particularly British?
For one thing, street clothes. It’s normal to see people on a British beach in street clothes. Go to an American beach in the summer wearing street clothes and you don’t just stick out, you’re a weirdo. You’re the person who wanders through the nudist beach in a bathing suit.
In Britain, though, it may be summer but most days will be cool. Even on a hot day, the air’s likely to have a cool undercurrent. And on a cool one? Clothes are a good idea. Real clothes—even a light jacket. When people go in the water, some of them wear wet suits. The summer ones have short sleeves, as a sort of nod to the idea of warmth and freedom that’s supposed to go with summer. And all of that makes sense.
I grew up in New York and learned to eat my ice cream fast, before it melted. The summers are brain-meltingly hot. For most of my adult life I lived in Minnesota, which has brutally cold winters but the summers can get almost as bad as New York’s. The British summers (and winters) are a relief. So when my British friends say, longingly, “I want to go someplace hot,” I smile and nod and think, Better you than me.
A resort town
What Swanage has that no American beach ever considered (and I say that as authoritatively as if I really knew all American beaches and knew that they could consider) is beach huts.
What, you ask if you’re American, is a beach hut? It’s the essence of British beachiness. Go to a touristy shop in any beachside town and you’ll find cards of beach huts, framed prints huts, little wooden models of beach huts that you can put in your cottage if have enough money to own one. They’re the memory of sea-sideness that you can take home to help you get through another year of real life.
Beach huts come in rows, usually with bright colored trim and always (as far as I can tell) with a pointy roof, a locked door, and some space in front. You can rent them by the day if any are available, although I wouldn’t put much money on the odds of that happening, or by the season. During the height of the summer, the ones in Swanage run from £30 a day to £1,400 for July 18 to September 4. Ouch. I hear tales, although not from Swanage, of beach huts staying in a family for generations, which I guess means you have to rent it year round.
Why would anyone want a beach hut?
Because it’s the essence of British summer. Because it’s a place to stash your stuff. Because it lets you play house at the beach, which is—humans are a mysterious species and can’t be explained entirely by logic—much more satisfying that playing house at home. If you have one, you can nest.
I’m fascinated by the things and spent a lot of time snooping, trying to see what was in them. My partner—let’s call her Wild Thing, since I often do—would have just gone up to some family and explained that she’s an American and we don’t have beach huts so she’s dying to know what people keep in these things. And they’d have ended up giving her a tour. She’d have been breaking all the British rules about privacy and they wouldn’t have known what to do other than talk to her. And 94% of them would have ended up being charmed.
The other 6% would have given her the tour in spite of themselves. Because the British rules of politeness would have kept them from saying, “What’s it to you?”
What I saw included: chairs, tables, tea kettles, cups, glasses, plates, forks and knives, cutting boards, tea, sugar, milk, coolers, beer, towels, shelves and counters to hold all of that, tablecloths, drying racks, curtains, and bunting.
What’s bunting? If you’re American, think of those lines of triangular flags used car lots string from lamppost to lamppost to make the place look a little less miserable, only these are made of fabric, not plastic, and they don’t signal used car lot, they signal celebration. They come in all mixes of patterns and colors. It’s one of those things you have to be British to understand. And if you’re British? You already know what it is but may not know that the rest of the world’s baffled by its place in your culture. I’m not criticizing, just reporting.Only one or two beach huts had hung bunting, but if you slot enough British people into beach huts, some percentage of them will be convinced that they need bunting. It’s as reliable as going into a café and knowing that a certain number of people will be eating baked beans.
But I don’t have space here to talk about baked beans, although they may be the key to understanding the difference between British and American cultures. I explored the topic in one of the early posts here on my own blog and I can’t say I’m much the wiser for having done it, but I hold onto the illusion that there’s some wisdom to be gained if we only go deep enough.
Abigail, an inspired cook and stay-at-home mother, decides to repair the problems in her marriage with a diet book for herself and an elaborate birthday dinner for her husband. But over dinner her husband announces that the whole marriage thing just doesn’t work for him. Reeling, she packs up her baby, her cookbooks, and her single estate extra virgin olive oil and moves in with her parents while she looks for work and child care.
Floundering in this life she didn’t choose, she turns for guidance and emotional support to the internalized voice of her diet book, and it becomes her invisible guru. While she struggles to reconcile the joy she takes in cooking with the book’s joyless and increasingly bizarre recipes and her native good sense with its advice, she works her way from one underpaid job to the next, eats everything but what her diet book recommends, and swears to get her life in order before her daughter’s old enough to create long-term memories.
Her diet book has promised to help her become the person she wants to be, but it’s only when she strikes out on her own that she figures out who that is.
- Book Title:The Divorce Diet
- Author: Ellen Hawley
- Genre: Womens Fiction
- Length: 240 pages
- Release Date: Kensington (December 30, 2014)
- Contact and Purchase Links:
Review: The Divorce Diet by Ellen Hawley
Abigail is in love. In love with her pretty house, her fancy kitchen full of upscale wedding gifts, the husband she chose because of how cute he looks in his suits. She’s head over heels in adoring love with her baby, Rosie. Basically, she’s in love with the idea of her grownup lifestyle. There’s just one problem, and he’s just told her, “It’s this whole marriage thing. It doesn’t work for me.”
If this was the seventies, Abigail would have gone out and had lots of (probably pharmaceutically enhanced) sex, found herself, and become an artist/feminist/Strong Whole Woman. In the eighties, she would have gotten big hair, shoulder pads, and a power job. In the nineties, she would pack Rosie and a few essentials into her minivan, move to a blighted inner-city neighborhood (which would gentrify overnight after she hung out a flower-filled windowbox), and eventually hook up with a sensitive Columbia dropout who just needed her understanding in order to start his phenomenally successful internet business. If it was the turn of the millennium, she would have either channeled the fifties (via an emo breakup song list on her phone) or the eighties (same emo breakup music list, but slightly smaller hair and eyeglasses).
But this is the second decade of the millennium. Husband Thad really has no choice but to become a hipster with a cool new hookup who will eventually dump him so he can Realize What He’s Lost, while Abigail moves back in with her parents and reverts to an emotional age of about fifteen. She hides in her room, whines to her imaginary diet book guru about abandoning Rosie/getting a job/money/her weight/cooking/her mother/her mother’s cooking/life. Oh, and about (not) doing laundry, (not) putting together Rosie’s crib, and (not) having a life.
For anyone who’s ever had teenagers or been one themselves, this is both painful and perfect. Abigail wavers between telling herself, “There’s plenty more fish in the toilet bowl” and the realization that her old life is so completely destroyed that she couldn’t possibly even reassemble Rosie’s crib back in her childhood bedroom. Abigail has to grow up. And luckily, she has her imaginary guru, the voice of her non-diet “Life Journey” book, complete with meal plans, life advice, and recipes. All of which, in proper teenage fashion, Abigail ignores completely. (I assume the voice sounds exactly like her mother, only with more whole grain recipes.
Despite the guru in her head, Abigail starts to grow up again. She gets a series of (horrible) jobs, manages to endure putting Rosie in daycare, and subverts the guru’s advice and recipes.
“For breakfast, it says to eat a two-ounce bran muffin and a cup of nonfat skim milk. I check the kitchen cupboards for a bran muffin the size of my thumb. When I don’t find one, it is not, I admit, a complete surprise.”
Slowly, painfully, Abigail invents the grownup woman who figures out the real recipe for what she has to offer, what will make her happy, and how to become the guru.
“Which one you use depends on what you like,” I type. “Because it’s your life and your cake and you don’t have to do what I tell you. There are rules in cooking and there are rules in life, but you get to bend them any old way you want, as long as you can make it work.”
I have to admit it. As a veteran of my own teen years, and the mother of four former teens, I love the whine. But even more I love the way Abigail unwillingly, unevenly, and unmistakably grows up. And most of all, I love the way she exchanges a lifestyle for a life. I’d give The Divorce Diet four stars out of five for author Ellen Hawley’s creative use of snark and humor, but most of all for taking us along on Abigail’s slice of life-altering journey from pretend grownup to reluctant teen and back to real grownup.
**I received this book for free from the publisher or author in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.**