Friday, 3 May 2013

Book Review: Puffball by Fay Weldon
Past Friday I reviewed a contemporary novel by a male author and for reasons of gender equality I wished to pass on to modern literary fiction written by a woman. Alas, I didn’t expect that this plan would give me such a headache! I checked my shelves and realized that my collection of books sprung from female minds was much smaller than I had thought. Of course, this is a shame, but until not so long ago only weak works of women writers seemed to cross my way and deterred by all the chick’ lit and romance novels on the market I rather turned towards the products of male writing.

For the past six days I’ve thus pondered which book to choose for my review. I could rule out two novels by Amélie Nothomb and one by Anna Gavalda right away because I didn’t particularly like them. The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery was an excellent option, but I wish to reread it first. In the end I wavered between Anna Gavalda’s compilation of short-stories titled I Wish that Someone Were Waiting for Me Somewhere and Puffball by Fay Weldon that was given to me by a friend. As you can see, I’ve made up my mind to review the latter. 

Fay Weldon was born as Franklin Birkinshaw in Birmingham, England, in September 1931, but grew up in Auckland, New Zealand, with her mother, sister and grand-mother. She studied psychology and economics at the University of St. Andrew’s in Scotland, before moving to London, marrying for the first time and having her first son. When Fay Weldon left her husband two years later, she got into advertising for a while. In the early 1960s she met her second husband, Ron Weldon, who was a jazz musician. The couple had three sons and got divorced in 1994. Later she married her third husband, the poet Nick Fox, with whom she is living in Dorset, England. Fay Weldon’s career as an author began during her second pregnancy, when she wrote for the radio, the stage and TV. In 1967 Fay Weldon brought out her first novel titled The Fat Woman’s Joke that was followed by more than twenty other novels, several short-story collections, children’s books and some non-fiction including her memoir Auto da Fay (2002). 

Puffball is Fay Weldon’s seventh novel and was published in 1980. It’s the story of the Londoners Liffey and Richard who have been married for seven years. Dreaming of a country home and life, girlish-naïve Liffey proposes Richard a bargain: she will go off the pill and have a baby, if Richard agrees to move to a country cottage. Richard believes that his wife only bluffs and will want to stay in town after all, but he soon realizes that she had been serious. Eventually, the two rent Honeycomb Cottage in Somerset and lend their London flat to friends. Since Liffey has made a mistake checking train connections, Richard is forced to change plans and instead of commuting between Somerset and his job in London every day he stays in town alone from Monday to Friday. Honeycomb Cottage is a lonely place with the farmers Mabs and Tucker as only neighbours. Mabs doesn’t like the trustful and carefree Liffey, but pretends to be her friend with the motive of teaching the girl a life lesson. Then Liffey finally becomes pregnant. Mabs, who already has five children and yearns for another pregnancy, sneaks abortive herbal brews into Liffey’s wine and food to induce a miscarriage and tries other means of black magic to drive the baby out of the wrong womb. While Liffey feels tired, unwell and at the mercy of hormonal changes, Richard succumbs to the temptations of living alone in London and begins an affair. After some more complications Liffey’s and Richard’s son is born.

As a writer Fay Weldon has a reputation as a feminist, her protagonists being women of today who find themselves confronted with chauvinism, violence and oppression. Motherhood is one of her important themes and in Puffball she expands her field to science. Several chapters are devoted to the biological processes during pregnancy, but the language in which Fay Weldon describes them is simple, graphic and witty like the rest of the novel. The book is a pleasure to read and amusing. I like Fay Weldon’s sense of humour and her way of telling a story. Despite all I feel that the male part is moved into the background too much. While Liffey and Mabs are lively characters with deep and varied emotions, Richard and Tucker seem rather one-dimensional in comparison as if men were nothing but unimportant, thus humdrum characters in the play of life. As a result the picture feels a bit incomplete to me.

However, I enjoyed reading Puffball and am ready to recommend this novel, too.


  1. There's a Day Weldon feast out there? Guy (His Futile Preoccupations) has reviewed two of her books lately. I should try her, I'm all for feminist lit.

    1. Emma, thanks for the information! I had no idea. I'll go and check the page you mentioned right away.

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