Man At The Helm, by Nina Stibbe
This novel is a fascinating and somewhat disheartening look into the origins of Generation X in the story of a young girl named Lizzie Vogel who, along with her slightly older sister, seeks to prevent their family from falling completely out of the ranks of respectable society through finding a man for her mother. I am not sure quite what the author was intending with this work. To be sure, there are some humorous elements, but I don’t think this book was only meant to laugh at. The level of age-inappropriate behavior in this particular novel is quite astonishing, and one gets a sense for the way that cynicism about relationships and fears about the stability of life are formed in the face of the abrupt destruction of the marriage and in the incompetence of Lizzie’s mother at simply dealing with adult responsibilities. Much of the book is spent showing the kids running amok, having to travel to London or other places (and learning how to tip cabbies, an important life skill) to get pills for their mother, while the mother tries to avoid handling responsibilities while writing plays and watching her world slowly fall apart.
It is a credit to the author’s comic sensibilities that this does not become some sort of grim tale of social decay, but rather has a happy ending. And the happy ending feels like an earned one, even if it is a bit of an attempt at a twist, because the suitable man at the helm first falls in love with Lizzie’s mother when she buckles down at the advice of her wise children and gets a job, even if it takes a bit longer for her and the girls to warm to him eccentric but decent ways. Before that happy ending, though, there is a lot of humor told from the point of view of a clever and rather sensible girl who respects her older sister, has managed to make friends despite the disapproval of the new neighbors for broken families led by single mothers, and is protective towards her anxious younger brother. Also, before this ending, the girls have to face the fact that rural England in the late 1960s and early 1970s has a distinct lack of appropriate and available men for a single mother with an addiction to pills and a taste for writing bad plays whose life and whose family is steadily going off the rails.
One of the most insightful aspects of this particular book is the way that the author uses an appealing and sympathetic heroine who one wants to protect far better than the character’s parents have as a way of exploring both a humorous story of one dysfunctional family’s attempt to find the right man to be in charge and also a case study in a far larger set of societal problems that led to the rise of the cynical and deeply wounded and alienated Generation X. The combination of an individual story and one that touches on larger themes about the vulnerability of children in broken families and about the hostility and isolation those families faced (which only increased the vulnerability of the children) is one that a lot of people can relate to. Indeed, I found the protagonist of this particular novel to be one I could relate to on a somewhat frightening level, demonstration of the way in which many unhappy families are unhappy in a small set of similar ways. As much as many might try to deny it, a family works far better when there is a decent if eccentric man at the helm.