Penguin Books. 1988. 277 pgs.
Man Booker Prize Shortlist, 1988.
Other books I’ve read by Lodge: the wonderful Deaf Sentence and Changing Places. Nice Work is the third Lodge book about fictional Rummidge University — a stand-in for the University of Birmingham, UK. If I give myself a break from the Challenge soon, I’d like to slip in another Lodge — possibly Small World, which is another Rummidge book.
Vic Wilcox, an industrialist and Robyn Penrose, a university professor have been coerced into participating in a feel-good university-community project that has Robyn spending each Wednesday shadowing Vic at his gritty factory-foundry. Vic and Robyn are as about unlikely a couple as can be: Vic is a non-nonsense “buy British” sort of guy with a Polytech background; Robyn drives a Renault and is an untidy intellectual who teaches Womens’ Studies and specializes in Victorian Industrial novels. Robyn hates Vic’s factory and her visits turn everything in his world upside down. She nearly incites a strike among the workers and wages a campaign against the girly calendars that are posted throughout the plant. As you might suspect, the sparks flying between these two characters eventually ignite something else and Vic and Robyn’s overnight trip to an industrial trade show in Frankfort, Germany turns out to be one of the high-lights of the book.
This is one of the most entertaining novels I think I have ever read. I had the added delight of tracking Lodge’s clever parody of Gaskell’s North and South — with Robyn as Margaret Hale to Vic’s John Thorton. Thanks to my Challenge reading I actually appreciated all of Lodge’s allusions. Another pleasure was the cast of great secondary characters: I particularly enjoyed Vic’s valium-popping wife, Marge, and even his spoiled and bratty kids. Robyn’s crowd over at Rummidge U included a doddery and eccentric Philip Swallow, who we met in Changing Places, and a crew of other roundly-satirized academics. Add in Robyn’s refined and genteel parents (aka Mr. and Mrs Hale) from the South of England, a Victorian ex deus machina twist that pulls the plot together and a surprise visit from the famous Prof. Maurice Zapp from Changing Places to help Robyn make up her mind on an important matter — and you have the perfect ending. Although the writing is so good and Vic and Robyn’s characters so memorable you just don’t want this one to end.