One Day I Shall Astonish the World by Nina Stibbe review – everyday comedy

An old friendship is put to the test in this light tale of university admin and bad dresses

Susan Faye Warren, Nina Stibbe’s self-consciously droll narrator, does her best to juggle her dull older husband Roy, unreliable best friend Norma and an uneventful office job, surveying departmental and marital strife with the same eager yet naive eye that she brings to energetic Norma’s reports of the local dogging scene. Susan’s travails make for pleasant if inessential reading; but if you approach the novel as Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend transposed to the fictional University of Rutland, with the local golf club standing in for the Camorra, bathos takes on an irresistibly comic tinge.

An English undergraduate, Susan meets Roy and Norma on the same day, the former when he turns up at the cafe where she’s having breakfast, the latter at her Saturday job at The Pin Cushion, a dressmaker’s supply shop. Norma is clever, strange and compelling, despite her dreadful homemade dresses. Susan is immediately intrigued, but Norma’s mother, co-owner of the shop, warns her off: “I don’t think you and Norma-Jean will be friends.” The pair swiftly bond over Norma’s literary ambitions, but such are the subsequent ups and downs of their friendship that Mother clearly knew best.

This may be a more lightweight affair than Reasons to Be Cheerful, which won the Wodehouse prize for comic fiction in 2019, but Stibbe retains her discerning eye for the low-level humour of everyday life. After pregnancy and a golf-themed wedding, Susan moves on from ribbons and fabrics to become an assistant to the vice-chancellor at Rutland (the university’s wildly optimistic motto provides the novel’s title). Her marriage has become slightly strained since she accidentally called out the VC’s name at an “unusually playful moment”: “All I can think is that I somehow got the names ‘Roy’ and ‘Professor Willoughby’ muddled.”

Emotional turmoil is played for laughs rather than Neapolitan histrionics. A revelation about Roy’s parentage is misunderstood by Susan as a reference to a pet tortoise; dogging leads to an unfortunate pants-round-the-ankles fatality. Susan only has to glance at another man for cold, aloof Norma to pounce on him, but their alliance prevails, more through Susan’s inertia and limited horizons than anything else. Norma has a Widmerpool-like ability to rise in society, while Susan can only look on in admiration. A final recalibration of the friendship is subtle rather than shocking. Susan may never “astonish the world” but she’s happy to raise a few eyebrows in the village, and perhaps cause a flurry of interdepartmental emails.

• One Day I Shall Astonish the World by Nina Stibbe is published by Viking (£14.99). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

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Suzi Feay

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