At the age of thirty-six, Laura Hamley lives the life of a stereotypical ‘yummy mummy’ — married to a successful lawyer, attractive children, yoga classes, paninis and air-kissing and dinner parties with friends. She has attained an aspirational dream of the times, but a phone call threatens to dredge up her past. The caller is Violet Partridge, whose daughter, Heddy, went to school with Laura. Heddy has been placed in a psychiatric institution, and Violet wants to get her released; perhaps Laura, being married to a lawyer, could help? There’s a very good reason, however, why Laura doesn’t want to get involved: she hated — and bullied — Heddy at school; but, try as she might, Laura can’t seem to extricate herself from the situation.
This Perfect World (Suzanne Bugler’s first adult novel, following two YA books) is a sharp character study. Bugler paints Laura as someone who’s only too aware of the artificiality of the world in which she lives (‘Do any of [her friends] have a skeleton rattling around in their cupboard? […] We meet, we chat, we think that we are the dearest of friends, but we all keep our cupboard doors firmly shut’ ), but clings on to it regardless, for fear of where she might be otherwise — the world she came from, as exemplified by Heddy and Violet Partridge.
I think Bugler spells out Laura’s view of her current life rather too much — it becomes clear enough in quite subtle ways, and we don’t really need (for example) Laura to reflect ruefully on her vow never to become like The Stepford Wives, because we’ve already understood the point. This is a collective problem, however; individually, Bugler’s observations are incisive and striking.
The author also establishes some effective parallels within her narrative. As far as Laura is concerned, Heddy Partridge is a blank screen on which to project her memories; she remembers what she did to her, but has never thought about Heddy as a person in her own right — what matters is that Heddy was, and is, the polar opposite of Laura. So, when Laura learns from Violet that Heddy has been cutting herself — like Laura did as a girl (because that’s what her friends did) — she has to consider the uncomfortable possibility that she’s closer to Heddy than she thought.
Bugler also skilfully portrays Laura’s adult social world — with its social conventions, and boundaries of speech and action that you don’t cross — as being every bit as mired in politics and snap judgements as was the playground. Laura’s discontent with her life bubbles under throughout, eventually bubbling over — and the result is a fine novel that stays in the mind afterwards.