Elizabeth Buchan’s bestselling novels wrestle with all the nuances of modern life and relationships, from dealing with one’s husband’s mistress in Revenge of the Middle-Aged Woman to the quiet joys and sufferings of long marriages. In her new novel, Daughters, she once again navigates the rough and tumble of the extended 21st-century family, as divorcee Lara tries to set her two adult step-daughters, and teenage daughter Maudie, on the road to happiness.
Lara is an echo of the matrimonially obsessed Mrs Bennet, the matriarch of Pride and Prejudice who is so desperate to marry off her five daughters.
“We’ve been deluged with Pride and Prejudice over the last few years and Mrs Bennet always gets a really bad press - she was a 'stupid silly woman'. [But] I thought: she got one thing right. She really wanted to see her daughters settled," says Buchan.
"What she meant by settled was marriage and good connections. What we mean by settled is quite different. But that visceral, very powerful impulse to make sure your children are sane and healthy and on their paths I think are [still] there. And so I thought id write about it.”
The novel is escalated by the run-up to second-eldest step-daughter Eve’s wedding to the slightly shifty Andrew, the chapters scattered with increasingly frantic emails about dresses and fittings and flowers. “That was fun, you can go slightly over the top,” Buchan laughs. “You hear terrible stories about friends and families or brides completely going mad – and obsessive - about the whole thing. Obsessive attention to detaiil - and when you think about how little it really matters, you wonder why – what’s it all about. In Eve’s case is to do with the fact that [the relationship] wasn’t quite right.”
Lara, who took on the upbringing of all three girls when Eve and older sister Jasmine’s father Bill left for another woman, is the rather anxious pivot around which her daughters circulate.
Buchan suggests that mothers and daughters being “best friends” is not necessarily a good idea. “You only have one mum and if you overstep that mum/daughter relationship that’s a great loss in your life. Speaking personally, I know I long to go on shopping trips with my daughter and sit on the sofa watching DVDs like we used to, but she has a life to lead and that’s no longer appropriate for her really. Maybe when she has children, if she does, it will all change again. But I think the best thing a mum does is step back at this point and let go."
Lara learns to let go - eventually - but it is a painful process. As Buchan explains: "I didn’t know, when I had my [children] you’re placed on permanent sentry duty for the rest of your life. I think Lara reflects that a bit...And I think all this performance up to the wedding is this sort of the lead-up to the time when your children go out into the world and you’re not responsible for them any more.
"It’s a time or mourning and a time of release, and by the end of the book she’s less anxious and less tied up in it all, and that’s quite natural.”
Buchan is fascinated by the make-up of modern families: “Ideally if the nuclear family is working it’s a fantastic thing but maybe it's not as strict in its definitions as it used to be. Centuries back – death was a constant presence so the family was always reshaping itself, so there’s nothing new about that. That’s perhaps its great advantage – it can reshape, it can flex and change.”
A writing life
Buchan knew she could write from when she was quite small, but decided to copy the example of George Eliot, who did not begin writing fiction until she was 40. “I think the great trick in life is to know if you’re an early flier or a late bloomer. And I was very tall and awkward and stupid and I thought well, I’m probably not going to be an early bloomer, I’m going to be a late one.”
She worked in publishing, as a blurb writer for Penguin and as an editor at Random House, fitting in writing her first three novels around her work and two children. After the third novel, she felt: “if you’re an editor it’s one set of skills and impulses and sensibilities and energy and if you’re a writer it’s completely the opposite. I felt I couldn’t combine the two, it was bad for everyone.”
Now the author of 16 books, including a children’s biography of Beatrix Potter, she is researching her new novel, which will be about the Special Operations Executive – Churchill’s guerrilla warfare squad which aided local resistances - this time set in Denmark, and following her 2004 France-set novel about the SOE Light of the Moon.
So what will she be doing for Mother’s Day?
“With a bit of luck I’ll be having breakfast in bed. And then I’ll go for a really hard power walk as because I know my darling son and daughter are planning to take me for dinner in the evening. And I’ll do a bit of writing, as I try to keep my word count up every day."
Daughters by Elizabeth Buchan is published by Penguin.