Adele Parks is an author in a unique position: her 14th book Spare Brides (Headline, February) is in many ways a début.
Spare Brides is Parks' first work of historical fiction, seeing Parks moving away from contemporary life to the 1920s.
It is a book she has “wanted to write for three years, and I’ve been researching it for that time too, so I’m just so excited about it. It has all the fun of a début, where I don’t know exactly what’s going to happen with it and it’s all very different, but I have got the confidence of it actually being my 14th book.”
Kicking off on New Year’s Eve in 1920 Spare Brides is the story of four female friends, a group of women who are all very different in terms of societal position, relationship status and beauty, but they have all had their lives drastically altered by the First World War.
There is the beautiful and married Lydia, her seductive suffragette best friend Ava, and two sisters, recently widowed mother Sarah and her plain, ever-single younger sibling Beatrice. Married or in waiting, corseted and bejewelled, the rigid structure of the lives of these young women is drastically interrupted by the arrival of a stranger to their social set: the enigmatic, intriguing and extremely handsome Edgar.
A Few Good Men
In the aftermath of the biggest military conflict ever seen, the friends are plunged into their own new, smaller social conflicts: new money versus old, convention versus curiosity, guilt versus excitement. Parks says that her research showed that before the First World War “it was all about society and working en-masse but after the war, because it was so devastating and enormous, people started to look inwardly. Traditional family structures broke down because there was no longer necessarily a mum and a dad; belief in society had broken down because all sort of people had rubbed shoulders in the trenches—so there was all sorts of change and new opportunities and, of course, with change comes conflict.
"Spare Brides is about the generation of women who have been brought up with the expectation that their career would be getting married—but there were no longer enough men to go around. So women like poor Beatrice, who is just desperately average bless her—the vast majority of us just are—lost out. When the men came back, because there were so few of them, they got to pick the prettiest and the richest girls to be their wives, and she’s just never going to be one of them. Sarah is 32, she is very young to be alone, and we would fully expect her to re-marry in our society, but in her world that’s the equivalent of being about 55, especially with so few men. She is very tragic and very brave. I have never been as wonderful as Sarah, she is just a fabulously good person, even though she’s been tested.”
How to be a woman
Spare Brides is filled with fabulous descriptions of the clothes, underwear and jewellery worn by the different women, with the fashions of the period bought vividly to life. Even though she loved researching that side of the novel, Parks says that when thinking about the Jazz Age it is very easy to assume women were either, “very posh, silly flappers or ‘hello, miss’-style maids—we are very simplistic in our view about what 1920s women might have been like.”
For Parks, the 1920s was the beginning of the modern woman—with women from across the social strata given the opportunity during the war to perform a whole host of jobs and interact with a vast range of people they never would have before. “In this time there were lots of women who had alternative careers during the war—not just finding a husband—who were then asked to go back into the home. I wanted to show that these women were sexy and lusty and seductive—it was lovely to acknowledge that with the emergence of this ‘stronger’ female, there was a knock-on effect on the way relationships worked.”
The sexiest girl in the group is the fun and flirty Ava. Very much new-money, her family was one of the few to do well out of the war, but despite her beauty and strong financial position she is just as frustrated as her three friends. “Ava, I just adore her. She’s sees the war as an opportunity to launch herself and find her potential, but she still doesn’t quite know how to get started,” Parks says. “She has it all, but is still banging her head against a brick wall. I aspire most to be Ava, she is just terrific in the way she keeps going.”
“Then there is beautiful Lydia, who is always perfect, with her extreme sensitivity. She just feels incredibly guilty, so many of these women were just steeped in guilt. She’s my heroine, and we all want to be a heroine. I loved all the girls. I became strangely obsessed about this book in a way that I’ve never been before, to the point—and I’m usually a very good planner, I’m quite a nauseating swotter about it—where this time I simply couldn’t write the last chapter. I just kept finding excuses. I simply couldn’t let them go, it was tricky for me. Some authors, say: ‘I’m not in the book at all’, but I know I’ve been a teeny bit of every single one of these characters at some point, they’re just a much more fabulous and glamorous version of me.”
Fertility issues, low self-esteem, money worries and infidelity: Spare Brides might be set between the world wars but it is filled with many of the “modern” issues seen in Parks’ previous 13 novels, which have raked in nearly £7.5m through bookshop tills to date (according to Nielsen BookScan data).
“It was a time of intense emotional conflict for women, and that’s what I’ve always written about. Spare Brides is like my other books in lots of ways, it is simply set in another time period. The characters are very much like the characters I’ve always written, but with this novel with every single thing I wrote, I had to think: ‘Is that how they would do that? Could they hail a cab in the street? How would they get dressed in the morning?’ Someone of Lydia’s social standing, at that time, would have been dressed head to foot—and that mix of intimacy yet disregard for her maid is fascinating.”
Parks spent a fair amount of time in country houses and museums while researching the novel, reading novels by Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and D H Lawrence as well as non-fiction titles such as Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth (Virago), Virginia Nicholson’s Singled Out (Penguin) and Juliet Nicholson’s The Great Silence (John Murray).
“I loved researching the dresses, the dances. I immersed myself in the whole thing. My office used to be completely white, and in the past year and a half I have filled it with old pennies, wooden furniture and pictures from [popular 19th- and early 20th-century weekly] Punch. I really did immerse myself in it; it is the most satisfying thing I have ever written. So for my next book I’ve stayed historical but I won’t be writing about anyone quite as wealthy. I’m just not ready to leave the period yet. I’ve got a lot more to say."
Five of Parks' top sellers:
Penguin/Headline, 9780755394258, £7.99
Bella was secretly married to Stevie, but left and never got divorced. Years later she is married to Philip, but Stevie re-enters her life . . .
184,544 sold [Since 2005]
Penguin/Headline, 9780755394203, £7.99
Parks’ début; Connie, happily married to Luke, falls for sexy “walking stag weekend” John
156,760 sold [Since 2000]
The Other Woman’s Shoes
Penguin/Headline, 9780755394234, £7.99
Sisters Martha and Eliza are suddenly single—wild child Eliza is after stability, but Martha wants to explore her wicked side
155,421 sold [Since 2003]
Penguin/Headline, 9780755394296, £7.99
Fern leaves long-term love Adam for handsome pop star Scottie. But is her new life all it’s cracked up to be?
136,567 sold [Since 2009]
Still Thinking of You
Penguin/Headline, 9780755394241, £7.99
Lovers Tash and Rich elope to France. But Rich’s uni friends crash the party and dark secrets surface.
124,497 sold [Since 2004]
- Catriona Ward | 'It tested me more technically, and emotionally, than any book I’ve written'
- Jessie Burton | “I think often people from the past get crystallised but I’ve always liked that idea of trying to capture and grasp how people would have thought and behaved”
- Vanessa Lafaye | “I think it’s only because I’ve lived in England all this time that I was able to write this book”
- Erin Kelly | 'In terms of plotting, it’s the hardest book I’ve ever written'
- Eimear McBride | 'I was really bored with the way sex is written about'