Review: Our Spoons Came from Woolworths by Barbara Comyns

I told Helen my stories and she went home and cried

Reading this first line at a bookstore instantly made me rush to the cashier to pay. I wanted to sit and do nothing but found out what had happened to the narrator.

Sophia is a twenty-one and naive artist living in England in the 30s. She gets married, against everyone advise, to Charles, a young man her age, also a fellow artist. Sophia and Charles, being artists and living a bohemian kind of life, don’t have much money, but they don’t care about that at first. They are pretty excited to move in together and paint their new furniture. Sophia is young, in love, and really determined to make it work.

However, Sophia is the kind of girl who always lets other people get their way and sacrifices her own needs. As I went further into the book, I couldn’t believe how idiot Sophia could be. How gullible and how easy it was for her to give up her way to other people – who all seem to have stronger personalities than her. Sophia feels intimidated by Charles’s relatives, especially his mother who always bosses them around and demands first-class treatment every time she visits them. Charles’s family has lots of money but they are quite reluctant to part with it and help the new family. Sophia’s sister, who is pictured as a more realistic, working single woman, often helps her when she is in need, but Sophia never really asks for her help because she feels embarrassed at her own failure in managing her life. But the worst has to be Charles the husband as he contributes almost nothing to their household. Nobody buys his art and Sophia has to do an extra work (who slowly became her primary job) as a model for artists.

“As soon as Charles started to paint he forgot about the cold and money worries. That is how artists should be, but I was only a commercial artist, so I went on worrying.”

Of all the miserable things that happen in her life (and by that time I had not read the worst part), the most frustrating thing is Sophia’s acceptance to whatever others in the book tell her to do. It seems that everyone always gets their way but Sophia. They let her do the hard work because they know she won’t argue or fight back.

I don’t know if that’s her personality or she’s just plain clueless about life. When she finds out she’s pregnant she’s really surprised (she mistakes her morning sickness as an allergy reaction to strawberries). This what she thinks about birth control:

“I had a kind of idea if you controlled your mind and said ‘I won’t have any babies’ very hard, they most likely wouldn’t come.”

At first, all of these were funny and I enjoyed Sophia’s cluelessness that makes the book such an amusing read. But then shit gets real. We all know from the narration on the first page that the present Sophia (who just told Helen her stories) is already separated from Charles. Reading how bad Charles is at being a husband and father, I was amazed it took Sophia that long to leave him. After her first pregnancy, things get more and more difficult for Sophia. She’s struggling a lot and what at first seems funny now it’s scary and heartbreaking.

The story of Sophia reminds me of Margaret Drabble’s ‘The Millstone’. The character is also a single woman living in England and raising her own child. But different from Sophia, this girl is more mature, independent and smart. I love seeing the contrast in the two books. I think Comyns’s choice to make Sophia’s character a bit daft is one that makes the book different. Often I want to give Sophia a slap in the face for being so idiot, more often I want to be her best friend and tell her to stand her ground. Although frustrating to read, from this book I can take a peek at Britain during Great Depression and what it was like for a young woman with children and no money to survive.

Thinking about what kind of woman Sophia is, I wonder if she (being gullible and stupid at the same time) is also a strong woman in some sense. If I were her, I wouldn’t be able to just move on with my life and try to be happy. Her ending (we can also establish from the first page of the book that she lives happily now) seems too unreal for me. I just expect her to be more broken. But then again Sophia who always takes in ill-treatment from others with open arms is very likely to embrace happiness without a second thought. All in all, I think Comyns shaped Sophia really well.

This edition of Our Spoon Came from Woolworths is from NYRB Classics


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