My ex-dentist resembled a potato wearing a Patek Phillipe. In those precious moments between the golf course and the cruise ship he would take the time to remind patients what good value our treatments were. Under the spotlights we could do little but stare, gurn and dribble, which he took, I presume, as a sign of our overwhelming gratitude. I thought that was bad enough, but it’s nothing compared to J.P. Wintergreen, the dentist villain of Nina Stibbe’s ‘dentally particular’ comedy Reasons to be Cheerful.
Set in Leicester in 1980, the novel is the third in Stibbe’s Sue Townsend influenced series of (stand-alone) books tracing the life of narrator Lizzie Vogel and her dysfunctional family. Now 18, Lizzie is an unqualified dental assistant to the rude, mouth-massacring Wintergreen, who can often be found ‘lying on the dental chair, in swimming trunks and protective goggles, under a sunlamp’. Racist, misogynist, patriarchal and a smoker, he provides a roll-call of our greatest contemporary sins, and acts as the immoral yardstick against which Lizzie can show her moral development as she stands up for neglected patients, going so far as to treat them illegally herself.
What’s more, Lizzie must contend with her ‘drunk, divorcée, nudist, amphetamine addict, nymphomaniac, shoplifter, would-be novelist’ mum, who is working on a ‘feminist sci-fi thriller’ with a ‘dental theme’ and may or may not be trying to sleep with Lizzie’s sort-of boyfriend, Andy (who’d rather birdwatch than have sex anyway).
There is a chatty, gossipy quality to the novel, which mimics the tone of a diary but eschews its formal structure, instead preferring short, episodic chapters to pack a comedic punch. At their strongest, these feel like little shots of laughter, but cumulatively the adrenaline wears off, as yet another quirky character or absurd event is thrown into the distracted plot. Things pile up, and the pace drags.
Lizzie is a witty, observant guide, but while there are plenty of good gags and needle-sharp quips, the novel is most effective when not trying to be funny. A chaste photograph taken with Andy during a day trip to London; a ‘heartbreaking’ visit to her ‘father’s family home’ and the emotional assault of ‘his new children’s intimacy with him’: in such scenes, Lizzie’s comic guard drops and we catch a tender glimpse of a deeper inner world. In Reasons to be Cheerful, as in life, the best moments rarely involve a dentist.
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