Man at the Helm

Man at the Helm

A Novel

Book - 2014
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Not long after her parents' separation, heralded by an awkward scene involving a wet Daily Telegraph and a pan of cold eggs, nine-year-old Lizzie Vogel, her sister and little brother and their now divorcee mother are packed off to a small, slightly hostile village in the English countryside. Their mother is all alone, only thirty-one years of age, with three young children and a Labrador. It is no wonder, when you put it like that, that she becomes a menace and a drunk. And a playwright. Worried about the bad playwriting - though more about becoming wards of court and being sent to the infamous Crescent Home for Children - Lizzie and her sister decide to contact, by letter, suitable men in the area. In order to stave off the local social worker they urgently need to find a new Man at the Helm.
Publisher: London, England : Viking, an imprint of Penguin Books, 2014.
ISBN: 9780241003152
Branch Call Number: STIBB
Characteristics: 310 pages ; 21 cm


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Oct 21, 2016

The author can turn out an amusing turn of phrase, but mostly this story of two young girls finding men - married or otherwise - to have sex with their mother is not funny. The characters are horrible, apart from the young boy who is so traumatised by neglect and anxiety that he can barely speak. The foul language was shocking too. I don't appreciate finding F and C words liberally sprinkled through books I am reading.

Sep 16, 2016

Stibbe manages to sustain one idea for 300+ pages - the precocious daughters of a posh mother fallen on hard times trying to find a husband for her amongst the unlikely local candidates. It is set in the 1970s in the area around Leicester. Amusing.

Nov 11, 2015

It is difficult to describe just why I liked this novel. Lizzie, a pre-teen, is the narrator of her family's story. There are many situations that are humorous, but also sad. The 1970s was not a good time to be an attractive divorced woman in small town England. Lizzie and her sister undertake a quest to find a suitable man for their mother to marry in order to regain her (their) lost status. The matter-of-fact way that Lizzie uses to describe events, belies her age but implies wisdom. The supporting characters are well defined, bringing the village to life. The book maintains its edge clear to the end, providing an ending that satisfies.

Nov 04, 2015

Funny and not so, rough and tender, like many families. A good read.

SPL_Melanie May 23, 2015

Reviewed in the Stratford Gazette, May 20, 2015. Full review under "summary".

carnett1 Apr 17, 2015

Paradise then serious transition. Innocent sympathy. Adult: Insecurity and approval seeking; clearly her husband was everything. What reasons are good enough to leave paradise. Happiness can't be without paradise.

gcrusco Apr 16, 2015

"Man at the Helm" is a rip-snorting good read from start to finish. Still, there were some flaws in this generally accomplished novel. I found the three part structure unbalanced: the second part was too drawn out in elaborating the family's teeth-gnashingly frustrating dysfunction, and the lyrical third part too brief just when development would have been welcome. I also found the quasi-juvenile voice of the narrator cloying at times. I did not find the book laugh-out-loud funny, but I definitely had an inner smile all throughout this compulsive read.

Feb 23, 2015

Very tongue in cheek - British humour (by page 2 the father gets a pan of eggs dumped on his head!) on a not-so-funny subject. The kids are precocious and buck up through rough and horrific times, a bit like Alan Bradley's Flavia de Luce or the 3 siblings from the Series of Unfortunate Events. Let's face it - there are quite a few dysfunctional families out there, and this one pulls through despite the dark times, thanks to the sunny dispositions of the kids. Better to know how to work through tough times and real life and keep a bit of humour than idealize fairy tale happy endings. The ending is quite happy, when you get to it.

stewaroby Oct 30, 2014

One of the most unusual books I have ever read. I started out loving it then things took a decidedly dark turn and I seriously considered just leaving it until a colleague urged me to persevere. Probably because she wanted to have someone to talk about it with. The reviews talk about how funny it is and it does have its moments of real hilarity but it is also really really sad and not a little shocking.

Oct 19, 2014

This memoirish novel is very affecting, and has its own distinctive style. It took a while to grow on me and then I just couldn't put it down. There are chuckles in here but it's heartbreaking at times.


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SPL_Melanie May 23, 2015

Lizzie Vogel, middle child of 3, narrates this clear-eyed, comic tale of family dysfunction. It’s 1970, and Lizzie’s mother has just overheard a phone conversation that results in the break-up of her marriage. She takes her 3 children and dog, and moves from their comfortable suburban English home to a small and self-contained village. As a divorcée, she and her children are outsiders from the start.

To regain some social status, and to avoid any dreaded visit from a social worker, Lizzie and her older sister come up with The Man List. It’s a working document of possible eligible men to test out – basically any man at all in their village; unmarried, financially secure, handsome… or not. They send letters (impersonating their mother) inviting these men to tea, one by one, in hopes that someone will stick. Among various setbacks and crises -- pet ponies in the house, a younger brother who mysteriously goes deaf when he closes his eyes, neighbouring twin sisters who target the Vogels, domestic disasters when Lizzie tries to do housework, and lots and lots of money trouble -- they persevere.

When things go really wrong, their mother finally perks up. She gets a job, moves them into an even smaller house, and begins to make things happen. At this point, when they no longer need a “Man at the Helm” to keep them going, Lizzie is about to bin the list. But then they add just one more name…

This is a quick-moving, darkly funny tale of a family in transition. Along with humour and satire, there are also wonderful moments of connection and a sense of hope amidst difficult circumstances. It relies heavily on its setting, so if you enjoy a British sensibility and are interested in a young woman’s voice telling it like it is (or was), you may just love this one.

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