Review of 'Being Netta Wilde' - Hazel Ward
An uplifting story of love, loss and second chances that celebrates friendship and human connections. Netta Wilde was all the things Annette Grey isn’t. Netta Wilde was raw, unchecked and just a little bit rebellious. She loved The Clash and she loved being Netta Wilde.
Annette Grey is an empty, broken woman who hardly knows her own children. Of course, it’s her own fault. She’s a bad mother. An unnatural mother. At least, that’s what her ex-husband tells her.
The one thing she is good at … the one thing that stops her from falling … is her job.
When the unthinkable happens, Annette makes a decision that sets her on a journey of self-discovery and reinvention. Along the way, her life is filled with friends, family, dogs, and jam. Lots of jam.
Suddenly anything seems possible. Even being Netta Wilde again.
But, is she brave enough to take that final step when the secrets she keeps locked inside are never too far away?
When I first agreed to review this book, I'd assumed from the description that it was going to be light summer read, heavy on the romance. However, the story is less about romance and more about the love of friends and the need to feel connected both to yourself and the people around you. One of the things I love about the story is that the central character is very definitely a middle-aged woman. Through her story other ideas, stereotypes and assumptions about women of a certain age are explored. As a reader we are asked to consider whether the desire to have children is common to all women. Should women over a certain age enjoy wild abandoned sex or is that something reserved only for the young? How much of our younger selves do we lose when we grow older? How far is the idea of who we are subsumed into the roles of wife and mother? A lot of these questions were ones I asked myself as I approached my forties and my own response was to start a Masters Degree for no reason, other than that it was something I wanted to do.
Netta begins the book uncertain and afraid of what her future holds, but as she gradually rediscovers the person she was always meant to be, we begin to see how different her life could be. I like that although there is ultimately a happy ending, the characters are all flawed in their own way and in a way that reflects the realities of life in the twenty-first century. Each character is developed well and although there were one or two occasions where I felt a situation was a little unrealistic (I'm not sure I'd leave my children with someone I'd only recently met, for example, but that may just be me!) on the whole the narrative felt as though it progressed quite naturally. Colin's transformation felt a little too quick on the first read, but as a parent myself, I'm well aware of the lengths we are prepared to go to in order to keep our children happy, so I was happy to view it as a superficial change that had the potential to develop into something more real over time. What I did like however, was that it turned him from an out and out 'bad guy' into something more real. He had suffered too in his own way and perhaps as Netta herself acknowledges, they broke each other, rather than it all being one way.
The one passage that really stood out for me was this small extract. Netta has gone to view a house and is being shown around by a male.
'I know it can be a bit awkward when you're being chaperoned. Especially by a man you don't know. If you prefer, I can leave you to it.'
This little speech was entirely in-keeping with the character's attitude and behaviour. However, it's an incredibly 21st century attitude and it's the first time I've seen this situation so openly acknowledged in a work of fiction. It's so important for women that men understand the potential uneasiness that many women feel and to have it spoken about in this way felt good. It's not always easy for women to acknowledge their vulnerability and for a man to identify the situation and offer to rectify it, entirely unprompted, was nice to see.
Thoroughly enjoyed the book and it was lovely to have a middle-aged woman as the lead character and for her to be given such a strong voice.
Hazel Ward was born in a back-to-back house in inner city Birmingham. By the time the council knocked the house flat and packed her family off to the suburbs, she was already something of a feral child who loved adventures. Swapping derelict houses and bomb pecks for green fields and gardens was a bit of a culture shock but she rose to the occasion admirably and grew up loving outdoor spaces and animals. Especially dogs, cats and horses.
Strangely, for someone who couldn’t sit still, she also developed a ferocious reading habit and a love of words. She wrote her first novel at fifteen, along with a lot of angsty poems, and was absolutely sure she wanted to be a writer. Sadly, it all came crashing down when her seventeen-year-old self walked out of school after a spot of bother and was either too stubborn or too embarrassed to go back. It’s too long ago to remember which. What followed was a series of mind-numbingly dull jobs that paid the bills but did little to quell the restlessness inside.
Always a bit of a smart-arse, she eventually managed to talk herself into a successful corporate career that lasted over twenty years until, with the bills paid and the children grown up, she was able to wave it all goodbye and do the thing she’d always wanted to do. While taking a fiction writing course she wrote a short story about a lonely woman who was being made redundant. The story eventually became her debut novel Being Netta Wilde.
Hazel still lives in Birmingham and that’s where she does most of her writing. When she’s not there, she and her partner can be found in their holiday home in Shropshire or gadding about the country in an old motorhome. Not quite feral anymore but still up for adventures.
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Don't forget to check out the rest of Hazel's blog tour - see dates and locations below for details.
In the meantime, I was lucky enough to be able to ask Hazel a few questions about the book and her plans for the future.
In the book, Netta believes she is a bad mother. Without giving any spoilers away, why does she feel this way?
To be honest, I think most mothers probably feel that way at some point during their lifetime but Netta’s belief is so strong that it’s led her to the situation she finds herself in at the beginning of the book. There are several reasons for that. Firstly, she didn’t want children. You might argue that’s perfectly fine, but Netta comes from a generation that grew up when having children was the ‘normal’ thing to do. Even though it was relatively recent, women who put their heads above the parapet and said no were still seen as a bit odd, at best, and selfish, at worst.
When she does agree to have children, she soon realises it’s not enough. Colin knows this and when things start to go wrong between them, these two things become useful tools in his arsenal. Her selfishness and lack of motherly empathy are recurring themes in their conversations and have been for years. If you hear it enough times, that sort of thing sinks in and you begin to believe it. For Netta, it’s a virtuous circle. She’s terrified of saying the wrong thing to her kids so becomes awkward and distant with them, making them uncomfortable with her and reinforcing her belief.
I think the real killer for her though is that there are times when she doesn’t actually like her children very much, even though she loves them, and she can’t forgive herself for that. There’s a line in the book that I think sums up her dichotomy, ‘She hated them then. Almost as much as she hated herself for feeling that way about her own children.’
Many books in this genre tend to focus on women in their early to mid-thirties. What made you decide you wanted your heroine to be older? Do you think this is something that is lacking in many books – are the middle aged under-represented in fiction?
I’m glad you’ve pointed that out. I do believe that older women in particular are under-represented. Not just in books but on screen too. Coincidentally, I recently wrote a post on my own blog about this very thing. It’s called ‘In praise of older women’.
When I’m writing I tend to gravitate towards older characters. They have a richness and depth that comes from being around for so many years and that interests me. Older women’s stories, in particular, can have real drama and poignancy that’s too often dismissed as trivial.
On a more selfish note, I’m a mature woman. When it comes to my own reading and watching habits, generally, I do seek out stories with a mature woman as the central character. Preferably a realistically mature woman. Not one who’s expected to look and behave as if she’s still twenty. If that’s the case for me, I’m sure there are many more women in a similar age group who want to read about women like them and why shouldn’t they?
When I read the book there were many things about Netta that I really identified with. What is it about women, do you think, which makes them often ‘disappear’ beneath the titles of ‘wife’ and ‘mother’?
I’m so glad you said that. I’d love to know which things you identified with. That’s a great question, by the way. I don’t think there’s a simple answer to it.
You could argue that social conditioning forces us down that route. Nurture, if you like. Generations of women have put their families before themselves and we’re still following that path because we know no other way. I’d like to think younger women are moving towards a better balance but, if they are, it’s a slow process. You could also argue that women are often too eager to please and too quick compromise and that leads them to sacrifice their individuality for the sake of peace. That’s probably the subject of a very long debate and not one we have time for here.
I’ve often wondered at what stage in our consciousness we stop seeing ourselves as individuals and become someone’s wife or partner, or someone’s mummy. It’s true that when you have children, there’s a shift in your perspective. There has to be, to keep your kids safe and well. But that’s not the same as losing your identity. That said, it’s hard to resist with motherhood because kids are pretty all consuming. Most women are too exhausted to be anything other than someone’s mum. Maybe we become so accustomed to being her that we forget the person that came before
Sliding between the wifely cracks is harder to notice. I think, if you have children being a wife/partner and mother gets rolled into one package. If you don’t have kids, then perhaps it’s that compromise thing again. Perhaps it’s also a status thing for some women. They might want to be seen as someone’s wife or mother. How many times have you seen a women describe herself as a mum or grandmother on social media? I’ve lost count. And there’s nothing wrong with that, if it makes her happy. There’s enough room in this world for all sorts of women.
Did you start writing the book with the intention of giving a voice to a particular group of women, or was it something that grew organically as Netta herself developed as a character?
I didn’t start out with that particular intention. The character of Netta was borne out of a short story I wrote for a writing course assignment and I just fell in love with her. Her personality grew from there and as it did, I realised I’d written about the kind of person others might see as a bit odd. Someone who didn’t see herself as fitting in. Someone who was, in fact, an outsider, and I was quite comfortable with that.
Many of the problems the characters face come about because of a lack of communication. If you indulged in a ‘what if’ situation – do you think Netta and Colin could have saved their marriage if they’d been more open with each other?
Hmm. That’s an interesting thought. When I started the book, I had a clear idea that Colin and Netta’s relationship was doomed from the start but as I got further into it I found I’d written in moments when the relationship could have been salvaged if both characters hadn’t been so wrapped up in their own hurt. I deliberately said relationship there, rather than marriage. I’m not sure the marriage would have survived because they each wanted the other to be someone different. But they might have had a better divorce.
I’d love to see where Netta and her friends go from here. Do you have any plans to write a sequel?
Actually, I do. This is the first book in the Netta Wilde series. Book two is already underway. It’s called Finding Edith Pinsent. You might remember that Edith, or Edie as she’s known, is the lady who lived in the house before Netta. She’s already died in book one so we only get to know her through her diary entries and from those who knew her. When Netta bought the house she promised to sort through Edie’s things personally and in book two, she begins to do it properly. As it turns out, Edie is not quite the person everyone thought she was. At the same time Netta decides to look for Doogie, so their story is updated.
I also have plans to write at least two other characters’ stories – Geraldine (Netta’s mum) and Kelly. There may be more.
In the meantime, I’ve written a short companion novel that I’m giving away free, exclusively to members of my Readers’ Club. It’s called Being Doogie Chambers. Doogie is Netta’s first love. He crops up twice in book one but we only see Netta’s view of those moments. In the companion novel we see it from Doogie’s side, as he struggles with his own problems. We also get to see Netta as a young woman. I promise you, she’s a bit fierier than her older self. I’ve included a link to my website page for anyone that would like to get the book http://hazelwardauthor.com/readers-club/