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Review: The Grown-Ups by Victoria Glendinning

grown ups glendinning Review: The Grown Ups by Victoria Glendinning

Having recently listened to an episode of the excellent Book Show in which two biographers of notable historical figures were interviewed, I found myself pondering the complexity of the the genre of biography, and of the different approaches taken to it by different authors. The art of biography seems maddeningly akin to piecing together a vast jigsaw puzzle without having as a starting point the image of the box: the final result is dependent on the materials at hand at the time and the ways in which they seem to fit together. Victoria Glendinning, author of The Grown-Ups no doubt knows this fact well. A noted biographer, she has completed a number of critically acclaimed accounts of the lives of well-known historical figures, so its perhaps not unsurprising to see her try her hand, and rather successfully indeed, at a fictionalised version of the same.


The Grown-Ups is less a linear narrative than it is a work whose chapters, and indeed perspectives, radiate outwards from a central character. Leon Ulm is a social philosopher who enjoys continued success in almost every field of his life, although the reason for this is almost unfathomable to the reader, making the entire conceit all the more intriguing. Ulm is a high-status academic whose occupational success hinges on a book written in his youth, and which he continues to reference and facetiously expand upon in both his personal and professional life. Ulm is a fraud of sorts in all spheres of his existence: he admits by the by that the more pivotal sections of the book in question were lifted from the work of another (now forgotten) academic, and devotes much time and effort to extra-marital affairs and, often, the mere possibility of these affairs. Ulm is boorish, crass, increasingly irrelevant, and yet puffed up with his own self-wortha self-worth that others around him seem to see and accept almost unquestioningly. Ulm, rather like Marlon Brando in his post-Dr Moreau days, is certainly nothing worth fancying, but those around him find themselves inexplicably drawn to him. Multiple wives, myriad lovers, adorers from afar: theres something about Ulm. But, of course, a man so lost in his own nebulous pomp and circumstance is bound to see a downfall, and Ulms ludicrous, arrogant actions result in a personal capsising from which theres no hope of return.

My thoughts

Glendinnings background as a biographer bursts through the pages of The Grown-Ups: its a rich, confident, and evocative work that, like many works of (faux-)history, paints a convincing argument by knitting together a patchwork of small details that eventually become part of a larger whole that often turns out to be astonishing in its scope and direction. Ulm is the principal character in that he is the pivotal aspect of the books plot, and is also the key focus of the books other major characters, and thus his presence serves, too, as a springboard from which the lives and motivations of Glendinnings other carefully wrought characters leap and launch.

The Grown-Ups is as such a literary mosaic, examining the lives of all of those influenced by Leo Ulm, and who, as much as Ulm would no doubt like to ignore this fact, significantly influence his own life. Theres a sense, too, that as Ulm becomes increasingly irrelevant to the world, try though he might to refute this fact, his influence on those around him is less and less. For example, Ulms ex-wife, Charlotte, broken and maddened, leads a forlorn and lost existence that continues to revolve around Ulm despite their having been divorced for many years. Martha, Ulms current wife, on the other hand, leads a life whose most promising, valuable moments are those where Ulm is elsewhere. Martha, quiet, selfless, and yielding when Ulm is around, comes into her own when he is away at a conference or is unwell, allowing herself to become engrossed in her work as an illustrator and adopting the swift and pragmatic habits of the younger, more progressive women around her. A small act such as eating a simple sandwich with cheese for dinner, rather than vast and elaborate cooked meal that would be otherwise eaten, when Leo is in absentia highlights Marthas palpable relief at no longer having to do her husbands bidding, and these small rebellions slowly grow in number and immensity.

The fascinatingly ambiguous, ambivalent character of Clara is an excellent addition to the book, as where Ulms influence is patriarchal, crushing, and endlessly, hopelessly, boorish, Claras is in many instances the opposite. Its a curious juxtaposition, as Clara, unlike the happily self-obsessed Ulm sees herself as invisible, uninfluential, and yet her presence has a precipitating force on many of the other characters. The relationship between Leo and Clara is tense and complex: one is the yin to the others yang; one represents the increasing irrelevance of the gentry class, while the other is representative of forces for social change. Ulm, of course, recognises this, but uses his position as a social philosopher (of all things!) to rail against the potential societal changes that would see him, and those like him, take a back seat to those whose success is more the result of their actions than their backgrounds. Claras feminism is a welcome counterpoint to Ulms regressive beliefs, and its thoroughly enjoyable to watch her, often entirely innocently, utterly skewer Ulm as she ponders various misogynistic quotes from Tolstoy, or squirrel away for later use the odd classist comment from a new mother and her obnoxious, born-into-wealth children. Of course, as Clara gradually grows more confident in her role and her person, her influence grows more vast, while Ulms dwindles (a narrative approach that reminds me of F Scott Fitzgeralds Tender is the Night (see our review), and as Ulm begins to take a more off-stage role, those who once lived in his shadow begin to come into their own. There are a number of fascinating character transformations as a result, a sense of Dante-esque returning to the light of life and agency after spending so long underground. After a life of forced infantilism, the grown-ups eventually do become just that.

The book does stumble marginally towards the end, with Ulms fate perhaps a mite unbelievable, but given that the book is more thematically than narratively oriented, the conceit still holds up. And given Ulms desultory character, one admittedly delights in his being taken off-stage at last to allow for the emancipation of the remaining characters.

On a prose level, Glendinnings work is superlative, and there are a number of lines that I, if I were a book-graffitiing sort of person, would have underlined or dog-eared for later reference. Glendinning appears to write very much for the ear, and has a style similar to that of the exemplary Salley Vickers (see our reviews), although perhaps a little more explicitly introspective. The book abound with quotable, memorable moments, and time and time again Glendinning so perfectly captures a characters thoughts or the mood of a scene that its difficult not to jab at the book and wave it around in delight. (See! See! Thats it! Thats exactly right! my poor boyfriend had to hear on several occasions). Glendinnings characterisation is superb, and her characters are complexly, frustratingly human, contradicting themselves, wavering constantly, and changing and altering with every situation. Everyone, including the rather execrable Ulm, is utterly, fiercely believable, which is an achievement in a book so slim.


Like Salley Vickers, Glendinning is an author I picked up on a whim, but who I am utterly overjoyed to have encountered. Her ability to so beautifully construct not just a small group of friends and relatives, but the entire society into which they fit, is remarkable, and this, combined with her beautiful characterisation and exquisite prose, makes for a wonderfully erudite and enlightening read. Ulms position as the central character is a risky step, but one that Glendinning pulls off, particularly given the insightful feminist critique that occurs through the character of Clara. Highly recommended.

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Other books by Victoria Glendinning:

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