A Vintage Friendship by Cathy Hopkins
by Michael Patrick O'Leary
Cathy Hopkins’s latest novel was published in paperback by Harper Collins on March 18 2021.
This review appeared in Ceylon Today on March 25 2021.
That awkward moment when you think you’re someone’s close friend, and … you’re not.
I have often written in these pages about the deleterious effects of the internet and smart phones on traditional notions of friendship. We have all been at social gatherings of friends or family where everyone is tapping away and staring at a screen rather than making eye contact and actually talking to each other. On the other hand, social media can be useful in maintaining friendships and re-establishing contact with people from long ago and far away. Reading Cathy Hopkins’s latest novel, I had that Carole King song going through my mind.
Oh, but you’re so far away.
Doesn’t anybody stay in one place anymore?
It would be so fine to see your face at my door.
Doesn’t help to know you’re so far away.
“Friends. They can heal but also hurt. Some can build you up, support you and help you face the world, others can also bring you down and leave you wondering what happened.”
A Vintage Friendship begins in 1972 when four friends – Sara, Ally, Jo and Mitch – are 18 years old and finishing their education at a Catholic convent school in Manchester, England. Sara was off to Exeter University to study social sciences, Ally to Oxford to read English, Jo was off to college in Brighton. Mitch was contemplating studying dance but had not got her application in on time so was facing a gap year.
Fast forward to “the present day” and things had not turned out quite as the friends had expected. Sara had a successful career in TV but had hit that age barrier. “For years, I’d been the face of Calcot morning TV, my face on posters, social media, even buses. ‘Face on the back of a bus, not like the back of the bus.” She had lost her husband to her ‘best friend’ and her grown-up son was far away in the US. “An elderly man kept staring at me. When he stood up to get off, he leant over. ‘Didn’t you used to be Sara Meyers?’ he asked. ‘I did,’ I replied.” “The taxi went on to Notting Hill and into a cobbled mews where I had lived for the past ten years. Home. No lights on. No dog, cat or partner waiting. My choice. No regrets.” The world thinks Sara is 58 but her agent knows she is 64.
Jo’s children were not far enough away – they, and their partners and offspring, were always there, draining her energy and her bank balance. Her husband had been a disappointment but had the decency to die. “He wore away at my self-esteem and he drained any joy from my life, like a Dyson vacuum on supersuck.” Jo had to bear all the burdens when Doug was alive, so it is a little easier without him in the way. However, her stressful life has made her obese and she has a heart attack which brings on an out-of-body experience.
Ally also had a good career as a literary agent but was now having to cope with the sudden loss of her beloved husband, Michael.
Nobody knows where Mitch – Michelle Blake is.
The main thrust of the plot is the three old friends getting together after many years apart and using tools such as social media to try to find Mitch. Sara loses her TV spot because she is considered too old but bounces back with the recognition that vintage people are a significant market with lots of leisure and money to spare. A new producer offers Sara a new programme -“TV Gold “ – aimed at senior citizens: “All I can tell you is we want something upbeat, an angle to draw in our more mature viewers, something relevant to that time of life”. They toss around ideas. “Bus Pass to Love Island, for the over-sixties”. “Love Island for older folk who like their food. We could call it Love Handle Island.” “Strictly Come Hobbling for people who’ve had knee and hip replacements.” “Medicate, Resuscitate or Pull the Plug?’
They decide to build the programme around searching for long-lost friends and to explore ideas about what friendship is. They encounter a group of ladies who call themselves The Bonnets of Bath. They live close to each other but in separate houses so that they can support each other without getting in the way or irritating. They adopt false names, dress up in silly costumes, have wild parties and generally behave nothing like elderly people should do. Katie of The Bonnets says, ‘And it’s good to have a clear-out of friends every now and then, like you do with your wardrobe.” “’Those who bring you down with sarcasm or cutting comments, who are judgmental or moaners and your heart sinks when they get in touch,’ said Jenny, ‘let them go’.”
The series is a success and Sara follows up with a book called The Rules of Friendship which is a compilation of the aperçus on the subject of friendship of the Bonnets and others who appear in the TV series and in the novel. “Listen as well as talk, especially if your friend is going through a rough patch. Snoring is optional but not advised, nor is checking your mobile whilst they’re baring their soul.” “True friends are genuinely glad about your successes and don’t measure them against their own and feel envious. Jealousy can kill friendship”. This is the Buddhist concept of muditha. “Don’t engage with bullies, don’t try to win their approval, most of them are cowards anyway. Don’t stoop to their level. Be yourself and proud of it. It’s never too late to change.”
Cathy Hopkins should be to Manchester what Ann Tyler is to Baltimore. She has written 70 novels which can be found listed here. https://www.thriftbooks.com/a/cathy-hopkins/383843/ She wrote a number of books for young adults in the series Mates and Dates and Zodiac Girls. She is now aiming at older readers. I do not mean to be disparaging when I say that the genre name “chick-lit for seniors” crept unbidden to my mind. She writes with an easy-flowing style which carries the reader along wanting to know what will happen next. I do not want to spoil the plot for potential readers in this review. There is a good deal of wit and I laughed out loud on many occasions. Once, around page 378, I could not stop the tears flowing. The light style and the humour and sentiment do not detract from the underlying seriousness of her work. I have read this book twice and enjoyed it even more the second time because it has depth. I have enjoyed several of her recent novels because she has a way of dealing lightly with heavy subjects like aging, bereavement, grief, loneliness, death and, of course, friendship. Cathy Hopkins’s books are available in paperback from Amazon and several of them are available on Kindle.
A Vintage Friendship is published by Harper Collins