To the unappreciative and disinterested eye, Anywhere’s Better Than Here might be just another work of modern Chick Lit – lining up to be drowned and forgotten in the sea of pastel paperbacks like it. But this is anything but whimsical and clichéd: another re-telling of the modern day fairytale of princes (Mr Right) and castles (a Notting Hill mansion) and pretty dresses (insert fashion designer of choice). Zoe Venditozzi’s first novel gives us the rainy, uncomfortable and difficult Scottish version of romance.
Glasgow. A dismal night during that expectant week before Christmas, when emotions rush to the fore and family drama is brought into sharp relief. Laurie is our no-bullshit girl who is tired of her BT call centre job and tired of her video game obsessed, dole-collecting non-entity boyfriend Ed who is more mouse than man. One dark and damp night she seeks refuge in a shabby boozer and meets Gerry, the slightly shabby, bearded and enigmatic older man. But this older man comes with a past and much more baggage than Laurie can anticipate. What has she let herself in for?
There are no shopping trips to shiny boutiques – save for a dash to a musty second hand shop run by a transsexual ex-teacher – no glamourous dates to cocktail bars. Instead, encounters in the studio of the hospital radio station, Hob Nobs and cups of tea in the cleaner’s staff room, dingy pubs and cheap pints, stalking the soon-to-be-ex boyfriend through hospital wards and a romantic getaway shirking off to a Highland cottage with a soldier with PTSD and his long lost fifteen-year-old son.
On the outside the story may seem a bit tame to titillate those with a taste for something that gets made into a Box Office hit, but it is what is happening inside these characters and inside the awkwardness of their relationships that makes it captivating and that the authour encapsulates so skillfully. She frustrates us with their actions and personalities and makes them real. We root for Gerry and despise Ed, along with his pathetic mother. We admire Laurie – she drives us crazy, too – but finish the book still not having fully worked out what she’s all about. Something Laurie hasn’t figured out either.
Dysfunctional teenagers, family drama, social services and tortured individuals. Anywhere’s Better Than Here has all the ingredients for a soap opera. Maybe that’s why it is so engrossing. This book pours cold water of realism onto sugar coated fantasies of romance, relationships and happily ever afters. Venditozzi writes frankly and clearly – small details of the everyday grind are set against astute reflections on life’s predicaments and human nature, making them all the more powerful.
Don’t be put off by its unremarkable name – although an appropriate one given that this is a story about humdrum existence and ordinary, imperfect people that get thrown off kilter – thinking that you might be letting yourself in for the more drisslier version of Bridget Jones’ diary. For Venditozzi trumps Helen Fielding on style: bleakness and the depressing cold are conveyed in a manner more akin to Samuel Beckett, and with its rough around the edges Scottishness, it is easy to imagine this all unfolding Irvine Welsh stylee.
Anywhere’s Better Than Here had me reminiscing back to A Little Love Song by Michelle Magorian (authour of Goodnight Mr Tom), one of my favourite and most re-read books of my girlhood. There the setting is a sleepy Dorset town during World War II to where seventeen year old Rose has been evacuated and where ex-soldier Alex is resting after being discharged from the army. Rose, like Laurie, is not your compliant girly-girl. And twenty six year old Alex is the soldier with a blurry past and a thick beard to hide behind.
And how refreshingit is to see someone confronting the fact that, yes, intimacy is scary and nothing like the perfectly lit film version we’d prefer it to be. She builds up tension and suspense that takes us through all our protagoniste’s infuriation, confusion and exhaustion, its culmination – some may call it anti-climactic – somehow making us laugh out in relief with a strange fondness for this Scottish lass.
Venditozzi has penned a tale for and about the twenty-something generation of today – those with the whole world at their feet and at the tip of their fingers, yet fell out of university at the wrong time. The expectations of the generation that went before them remain, but the landscape isn’t the same. I won’t be forgetting Laurie or Gerry for a long time.