The Town in Bloom, by Dodie Smith
The Town in Bloom is another of Corsair’s reprints of three Dodie Smith novels. It was first published in 1965.
The Town in Bloom is split into three separate sections. The first section opens with a lunch reunion, held in London every five years without fail. Aside from Mouse, three ‘friends one has known from [her] youth’ have been invited – Molly, Lilian and Zelle. The luncheon is a slip back into the pasts of the characters. They always visit the same restaurant, their meal is identical to that which they ordered during their first momentous meal together, and they are made, almost forced, to absorb themselves back into the past. Lilian insists that her friends are ‘not to talk about the present. You’re to think yourselves into the past – so that the past becomes the present.’
Zelle is always invited to these reunions, but fails to show up. The group haven’t seen her for many years – they knew her ‘very well, but not for long, and… a long time ago’ – but never really give up hope that she will show up. There is a foreshadowing that their relationship with Zelle ended in an incredibly unhappy manner. Smith alludes to ‘the way things ended’, a rather ominous statement which becomes clear as the novel progresses. Mouse spots her quite by chance in a park outside the restaurant and, intent on speaking to her, follows her to a tenement flat block which has a ‘grim, grubby respectability’.
In the present day narration, Mouse is a character who is incredibly interested in art and is also writing a book, a task which is proving more difficult than she believed it would be. We never find out her Christian name which she describes as being too long, and the affectionate ‘comic nickname’ bestowed on her by her friends sticks in consequence.
The second section of the novel then goes back in time to Mouse’s first night at ‘the Club’ during the 1920s. She is an orphan who has left her home in Lancashire after the death of her beloved Aunt Marion to start a new life in London, feeling ‘wonderfully free’. Her Aunt inspired Mouse’s love of the theatre and her niece wants to become a success on the stage in order to honour her. On her first night at the Club which is referred to as the other girls as ‘the village’, Mouse meets Molly Lorimer and Lilian Denison, who are both involved in musical comedy. The girls are all orphans and this gives them a certain solidarity with one another. They consequently become firm friends, united by their experiences. Mouse is mothered by them immediately, and even in the present-day narration they call her ‘child’.
Whilst in London, Mouse subsequently visits the Crossway Theatre in the hope of finding an acting job. She meets the actor-manager, the revered and kindly Rex Crossway. She soon finds herself part of an audition. Her sheer will and determination allow her to prevail in some of the situations she meets with. A good example of this is that despite being the wrong candidate for the acting job, she is offered a position as Rex’s secretary’s assistant. Secretary Eve Lester is ‘elegant, rather than smart or fashionable… what she really had was a faded beauty’. The ‘charm and personality’ of the protagonist serve to carry her career forwards.
There are many touches throughout which are incredibly and unmistakeably British. Smith’s distinctive writing style really shines through in The Town in Bloom. Her descriptions of the countryside, the restaurant in which the friends have lunch, and even her observations of everyday life, are so vivid that they set the scene immediately. The way in which Smith portrays many varied elements of life is wonderful. She does not used clichéd descriptions, but those which are fresh and interesting – for example, Lilian is described as having ‘gardenia-like sophistication’ and Molly has a ‘milkmaid freshness’ about her. Mouse explains that ‘when I studied my face in a dressing-table glass I knew I could play Lady Macbeth’.
The characters who feature in the novel have a wonderful array of unusual names – Zelle, Mouse and Madam Lily de Luxe among them. The character building throughout is executed well. We learn so much about Mouse and her friends from the moment they are introduced. Molly particularly is bossy and determined to be in charge. If she was portrayed by an author other than Smith, she may well be an unlikeable character, but the reader warms to her immediately.
The Town in Bloom is told from the first person perspective of Mouse. A journal entry is used on one occasion which helps to set the scene, but unfortunately this mixed narrative technique is not continued as the book progresses. Her narrative voice is distinctive, however, and flows relatively well throughout.
Smith’s novels seem to run on a theme, as a love interest for the main protagonist is included without fail at some point during their story. In this case, Mouse suddenly realises that she is in love with Rex Crossway and tells him so in rather an unlikely fashion. His only actions are to accept this announcement which comes out of nowhere, and to confess that he is simultaneously in love with her. This seems an incredibly unlikely course of events, particularly as Smith has not given even a shadow of the possible love between them beforehand. Various problems for the couple ensue as a consequence. The first half of The Town in Bloom was very promising, but it did wane a little and the storyline seemed rather unlikely in places.
The Town in Bloom is a coming of age story, essentially about growing up and moving forward. It is certainly an interesting novel, but it is not as engrossing as It Ends With Revelations, and certainly not as fine as I Capture the Castle.