Monday, April 25, 2011

Anything Can Happen (Review)

Anything Can Happen is the first of the two Dizzy and Alison books, published by Nelson in 1964. The protagonists are the oldest leading characters to appear in Jane Shaw’s books, the two English girls being 17, going on 18. The story, told in the first person by Alison, begins with the good news that, as a reward for getting a place at university, Alison is given a two-week trip to Paris. Along with her somewhat eccentric cousin Dizzy, whose real name is Elizabeth, she will stay with her Aunt Sophie, a writer of mystery stories. Whenever Aunt Sophie receives a cheque from her publishers, she goes out on a spending spree. The aunt is so generous that the girls are even flying to Paris, a real luxury in the 1960s.
Once in Paris, the girls enjoy excellent French food and go sightseeing. But they also unwittingly get mixed up in a jewel robbery. As a favour to her mother, Alison agrees to call on Madame Bertholet, Mrs. Fraser’s former governess. However, far from the kindly old lady who loves to reminisce about the past that they had expected, Madame Bertholet is cold and unfriendly and can hardly wait to get rid of the girls. As an added insult, she does not provide the delicious French cakes that she promised, serving instead some awful dry English biscuits. Dizzy simply can’t get over this, especially because they are in Paris, which is famous for its food. A little analysis by the girls leads them to believe that this woman cannot possibly be the governess. So who is the mysterious Madame X, and who is the man in the grey suit that is suddenly following them everywhere they go? To help them investigate, they enlist the son of one of Aunt Sophie’s friends, Pierre de Gramont. Alison falls for Pierre at once, but believes that her chances with him are nil, since every young man they ever meet seems to have eyes only for Dizzy. Alison readily acknowledges that Dizzy can have any man she wants: she has beautiful copper hair and the skin and features of a beauty queen, whereas Alison is shorter and has a little nub of a nose. Pierre and his brother Alain and their two little sisters, RĂ©gine and Danielle (les petites), show the girls around Paris and come up with ideas for the investigation. The story for the most part is fast paced and builds up to an exciting climax in Alison’s Paris hotel room.
In Anything Can Happen, Jane Shaw appears to be trying to hold onto the audience she had captured a couple of years earlier with Crooks Tour. And she succeeds. The first person narrative by Alison, the straight man, is excellent and captivates the reader. There are many detailed descriptions of the Paris landmarks, the best being in Chapter IX, Up Among the Gargoyles, describing a visit to the top of Notre Dame tower. The Paris of Anything Can Happen seems to be more intimate than the Paris of Crooks Tour or Looking After Thomas. This may be due to the fact that the girls go to many places by car. In the other stories, the characters are school children who go everywhere by bus or on foot. But the more mature girls here find their way around more easily and have the advantage of having French friends to guide them around almost everywhere.
This is an excellent work and well worth reading. If there is a flaw in the story it lies in the characterisation laid down in the first chapter. At the very beginning, Alison describes Aunt Sophie as “mad as a coot” and Dizzy as “a good deal dottier than Aunt Sophie”. However, neither character realy lives up to these descriptions. Aunt Sophie’s quirks are that she has a list of restaurants to visit (she prefers eating out to cooking at home) and that when she gets an idea for a story she can’t tear herself away from it and is oblivious to everything else. As she’s in Paris, liking the restaurants is hardly a sign of madness, and probably every writer in the world gets caught up in his stories. Dizzy may indeed be described as a little dotty, but her eccentricity lies more in her thinking being just a little bit off-beat or warped rather than mad. Her reactions to some situations are unusual and not what you would expect from the average person, but not particularly over the top, certainly a far cry from the much more exasperating Ricky and Susan.
The traditional Jane Shaw traits are there, but with a difference. The humour is much more subtle than in the books for younger readers, but still makes you smile. The girls’ conversation after their first visit to the phoney Madame Bertholet is hilarious, and Alison’s reaction to the French love for coffee at every possible opportunity is very funny.
Finally, for a Jane Shaw story, the romantic element in a novel is something new. Romance had crept into a couple of short stories in the early sixties, but now we see Alison in love with Pierre – and her affection is reciprocated. She is more than pleasantly surprised when Pierre asks her to write to him. For once, she is liked more than her beautiful cousin. Will their romance actually blossom? So far, that is left to the imagination after the girls return to England. But maybe the sequel, Nothing Happened After All, will provide the answer.
On a scale of one to ten, I would give Anything Can Happen an 8. An excellent piece of work. The book is 207 pages long and has six black and white illustrations by Thelma Lambert.