Take one rather lost and lonely English professor and sit her next to a gorgeous, intellectual and amusing woman on a flight to San Francisco. Bring them back together for a madcap costume party that evening, and make both of them brave enough to step out of their comfort zones and “go there”. That’s the basic plot of Ann McMan’s wonderful short story “Falling from Grace” in her anthology “Sidecar”, which led to the idea of “Beowulf for Cretins”.
Don’t worry if you haven’t read “Sidecar” (although if not why not?) as the slightly amended story is repeated as chapter one of the full-length version. And once Grace and Abbie go their separate ways the morning after the party, with no contact details, not even last names shared, then surely it will take an act of fate, or possibly an act of God, to make their paths cross a second time.
Roll forward and, of course, The Fates intervene; Abbie turns up as the new President of Grace’s college, throwing them together, bringing turmoil, romance, angst and trellis climbing adventure. The conversation gets even more sarcastic and convoluted, the humour more literary, and the passion more overwhelming, as these two amazing women try to find a way forward without threatening Grace’s tenure run, alienating the college board, or making a mockery of Abbie’s professional standing.
Ann McMan has this amazing ability to combine intellectual wordplay with the portrayal of sympathetic characters, charming romances and genuinely wonderful friendships. While our focus must be on the erudite and entertaining main characters and their somewhat tortuous path through the brambles of professional integrity, the ensemble is filled out with absolutely adorable secondary characters and relationships.
There is an extensive cast from the 9 o’clock dog to the challenging but foul-mouthed brain of CK, who compares relationships to quantum physics; Grace’s Neanderthal, but heart of gold brother, Dean; the master of the fates Rizzo and the powerful presence of the judgemental mothers for whom these amazing women have never been good enough. And we can’t forget to mention Sister Merry Larry, scourge of the catholic girl’s sexual education, now literally “fallen from grace” and finding fun without any slapping. Add in more complexity by CK making hay with Dean, Rizzo having studied with Abbie, and the whole intricate situation having been already resolved, and you have a glimpse of how much fun this story really is.
Is hard to know where to stop with the praise. The writing is immaculate, the use of language and references to the arts and literature make for extremely scholarly characters, well apart from Dean and Grendel, although Grendel has some great lines, and any author who can use “floccinaucinihilipilification“ in a sensible sentence deserves genuine genuflection.
“Beowulf for Cretins” is not a laugh out loud comedy, more a comedy of errors; producing a constant deep-belly rumble with occasional eruptions of uncontrollable chuckles. I have already read it twice and will happily read it again and again, finding something new to see, some new witticism to understand, and some new empathy for the characters in this superb work.
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(publisher review copy received)
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