V.S. Naipaul attracted a lot of flak when, in an interview a few years ago, he claimed that men and women wrote different kinds of novels. He went on to claim that he could make out within the first few pages of a novel whether it was written by a man or a woman.
I would have had no difficulty in guessing within the first five pages of Sex and Stravinsky that it was written by a woman. Why? Read this paragraph on page six:
'. . . she knows the uses of coconut milk and cardamom pods. While her contemporaries stuck with pulses and tinned pilchards, and mounds of oily grated cheddar she is already making her own pesto with fresh basil which she grows from seeds in flowerpots and her careful student budgeting allows for tiny bags of pine nuts and pecorino cheese. . . She makes glazed fruit tarts. She makes fruit mousse, mixing dried apricots, stewed and pureed, with gelatine, whipped cream and frothed egg whites. For Josh she makes an airy angel whip.’
As you read on, there are detailed descriptions of clothes worn by some or more female protagonists, descriptions of the dressing rooms of houses, so on and so forth.
As it happened I did not have to guess, as I knew that the novel was written by a woman, Barbara Trapido, who, while she will not feature in the top-ten list of my favourite novelists, is a writer I have time for.
Sex and Stravinsky is Trapido’s first novel since the 2002’s Frankie and Stankie, which I thought was brilliant. The autobiographical novel which told the story of two white girls growing up in the apartheid era South Africa was something of a departure for Trapido, whose earlier novels could be best described as romantic comedies or comedies of error. I have read two of them. The Brother of the More Famous Jack, Trapido’s debut novel which won the Whitbread (now Costa) award, and The Travelling Horn Player, which came out in 1998 and was very well received critically. The Brother of the More Famous Jack was, I thought, thematically very similar to an earlier novel by Margaret Drabble (Jerusalem the Golden), although Trapido’s treatment of the subject matter was different and was characterised by what was to become her trademark—light and comic touch. The Travelling Horn Player was an effervescent novel which did not linger on in your mind.
With Sex and Stravinsky Trapido has returned to her terra firma—romantic comedies. The setting of Sex and Stravinsky is South Africa (where Trapido was born and grew up) and Oxford (where she has spent most of her adult life). Like her earlier romantic comedies (for example Travelling Horn Player), Sex and Stravinsky is breezy and cheerful, with—in tandem, perhaps, with the mood of the novel—carefree unconcern for realism. Her comedy is almost Shakespearean in this sense, full of chance meetings and coincidences.
The main characters in Sex and Stravinsky meet one another from time to time, without knowing that they are connected, the pattern hidden behind their movements and decisions being governed by the all-seeing omnipresent fate, or, the writer.
This is the story of two couples Josh and Caroline, and Hattie and Herman. Caroline is an Ozzie while the others are South Africans. Hattie is Josh’s first love but she declined to accompany him to England when he wins a scholarship to study ballet dancing in England. In England Josh meets the super-efficient Caroline and marries her, forgetting, with the passage of time, his first love. Hattie is locked in an outwardly successful but increasingly loveless marriage to Herman who is an acquaintance of Josh at the University and is different from him in every conceivable way. They have three children, of whom the youngest, Kate, or Cat, is at home. Cat, who despises her mother with a passion, is tentatively embarking on what promises to be a successful career in bulimia. Hattie writes moderately successful children’s books on—you have guessed it— ballet dancing. In the meanwhile, Josh and Caroline, in England, are happily married—or so they think. Josh is a dance academic while Caroline is a head-mistress and can command everyone except her caricaturesquely obnoxious mother, who, no matter what Caroline does to please her, is never pleased and always favours the younger daughter, Janet, who lives in Australia and wants nothing to do with her. Josh and Caroline, too, have a daughter, named Zoe who is a minor neurotic. These are the main characters in the drama. Then there is the supporting cast. It includes, in no particular order, Caroline’s ghoulish mother (already mentioned) and ghastly sister (ditto); Josh’s parents—Josh is their adopted son—who are Jewish and are anti-apartheid activists in South Africa; and Jack, the illegitimate son of their Black maid, Gertrude.
As the novel progresses, we learn more about the lives of the protagonists. Caroline, who has gone out of her way to be subservient to her mother and has subjected her family to sacrifices in order to keep her mother sweet but has always been the less loved, unfavoured daughter, discovers that she was adopted (in a manner of speaking—she was given to Caroline’s mother, adoptive mother that is, on a bus in Sydney). This knowledge about her provenance triggers the kind of upheaval in Caroline’s attitude to everything, compared to which the revolution in Russia was a tea party. She turns up in South Africa with her daughter to inform Josh, who has travelled there to participate in a conference, that her mother, though she wasn’t her real mother, had died (although why the news couldn’t wait—seeing as Caroline has decided that the woman was a bitch— till Josh returned from the conference is not clear). And whom should Caroline run into upon landing in South Africa? Why, Herman, Hattie’s husband, who, in the tradition of randy White South African men, is always looking for opportunities to get his leg over. Caroline and Herman hit it off straightaway and the woman whose boldest decision until that time was to add a twist to a lemon meringue pie, allows herself to be taken first to Herman’s house (which is also Hattie’s house), and then to be, well, taken. Josh in the meanwhile has run into Hattie at a local café, and the two ex-but-about-to-be-current lovers are visiting museums and galleries and animatedly discussing finer points of Stravinsky’s Pulcinella. It doesn’t end here: Herman and Hattie have a lodger named Giacomo, who is none other than Jack, the son of the maid who worked for Josh’s parents. And the man who impregnated the Black maid was none other than Hattie’s reprobate brother James when she worked for her parents, although neither Hattie nor Josh is aware of this link till the very end. Have I missed any more co-incidences? I might have. This is a novel so full of co-incidences that you are left wondering whether co-incidences aren’t travelling around looking for their lost twins.
I shall not be giving away any secrets, I hope, when I say that it all ends happily with the main protagonists realigning themselves with each other’s partners, the arrangements and exchanges taking place more smoothly than a transaction at the Tesco counter.
Trapido employs the tried and tested literary tropes—secret paternity and adoption, sibling rivalries—to embellish the narrative, mostly to impressive effect. The prose is elegant and has a kind of rhythm and flow to it which, for the most part, carries the novel through.
Nevertheless, reading Sex and Stravinsky is a strange experience. The characters are contemporary; the story takes place mostly in the here-and-now, and when it deals with the past, it’s still twentieth century. The problems and dilemmas faced by the protagonists are real enough; yet they are dealt with in a manner that is very unreal. Towards the end, especially after Caroline’s discovery that her mother was a manipulative harridan, the pace of the novel increases, the co-incidences and chance encounters come thick and fast, so much so that the plot runs the danger of appearing contrived. The narrative tone, throughout, is facetious, almost fatuous; and the resolution of the mismatched relationships is slapdash. It is almost as if the author is begging you not to take any of it seriously because she herself isn’t treating it seriously. There is a token nod to the apartheid inequalities in South Africa, but here, too, in contrast to the superb Frankie and Stankie, in which the heroines come slowly to realise the inequalities of the world around them in which they enjoy privileged positions, the matter is treated with about as much gravity as in a Christmas pantomime.
The title of the novel is a tad misleading. There is no sex and Stravinsky’s Pulcinella has no bearing on the narrative; it plays no pivotal part and is mentioned almost as an aside—a ballet Hattie likes.
Reading Sex and Stravinsky is like eating a happy meal at McDonald’s: it is cheap and cheerful, it will fill your stomach; but if you want a gourmet experience, you will need to look elsewhere.