Jenny Ebert is not even remotely comfortable in her own skin.
That much is apparent from the get-go in The Lonely Hearts Cinema Club, the latest book from David M. Barnett (Calling Major Tom) in which the film nerd who won’t accept she’s a film nerd – she loves film noir, and can talk at length about it but rejects being tagged as a nerd with a vehemence reserved solely for the existentially ill-at-ease – gussies herself up in Lauren Bacall-esque retro clothes and a coiffed do to die for and sets out for her imagined new life at university in Morecambe, north Lancashire, as far away from her boring life and boring parents as she can get.
Barely nineteen and with attitude to burn, she arrives at Sunset Promenade, a rest home for the elderly, which is the only place she can find a place to live until the uni finishes building their seriously-delayed new residential accommodation, determined to tough out the intervening few months until her new glorious life as a tertiary bon vivant can begin.
Jenny, who is actually at heart a decent, caring, loving person who’s so alienated from herself she doesn’t know it yet, imagines she will be the belle of the uni ball, accosted by people without number wanting to talk with her, laugh and socialise with her, the star of the show in a way she never was back home where social misery seemed to her only companion.
“Which of these will be her new friends, she wonders? She looks around the gathered tribes, the goths and the emos, the loners and the geeks. Mentally she puts a cross by each of them, looking around for people like her. People she is now. The cool people, the night people, the ones for whom style and class are effortless.” (PP 1-2)
Of course what we imagine will happen and what does actually take place are two utterly different things in most instances, since reality is not all the beholden to daydreams, even fervently-conjured up ones, and so Jenny, caught in a steady downpour that leaves her Bacall-esque persona nothing but a soggy memory, arrives to her new life wet-through, unsure of herself and totally unready for the new life that awaits her.
A life that will turn out to be rather lovely thank you very much, but which at first is confronting is its complete lack of semblance to what she envisaged.
She’s aware, of course, that where she’s chosen to live is full of old people, well five of them anyway; what she isn’t prepared for is that racist Mr Robinson, faded party boy Ibiza Joe, nasty Mrs Slaithwaite, mysterious but beautiful Edna Grey and daffy Mrs Cantle, and the Grange brothers who run the place, and Florin who tends to the lot of them, will become the community, the friends she’s been longing for, despite not knowing it.
And that in the midst of this seismic shift in expectations, driven by a wholly-unexpected reality, she will find the possibility of love with the loveable Ringo – yes he is a Beatles fan, particularly the song “Eleanor Rigby”, a young man still reeling from the relatively recent death of his mum and dad – rapprochement with her mum and dad, and more than a modicum of peace with herself.
It’s a journey full of endearingly quirky characters, high stakes and more than a little mystery, replete with a slew of well-used stock-standard British storytelling tropes that invest The Lonely Hearts Cinema Club with a Cinderella-like sense that change is possible, but more importantly, that what you think you want is not always what you need at all.
It is, as are most journeys, a rather convoluted one.
Gratifyingly for a book that doesn’t delve as deeply as it might into the human condition, The Lonely Hearts Cinema Club, takes its time reaching its destination, revelling in the way human beings don’t always change with the profundity, depth or certainty that they do in fairytales or morality plays.
In fact, where you might expect Jenny to have some sort of epiphany or the various residents of the home, their innermost secrets, or some of them at least, revealed to Ringo as part of his uni project on peoples’ cinematic memories rather playfully titled Ringo’s Stars, to turned into better, more well-sculpted versions of themselves, they zig where they might otherwise have zagged.
In a book which ends up pretty much where you expect it to with a delightfully happy ending where everyone gets a second chance, the path to this ending is pleasingly murky and not straight forward with people, even trope-heavy as they are, allowed to act like people.
In other words, get it wrong, monumentally wrong at times, Jenny most particularly who is damn well near unlikeable at first, and yet somehow stumble somewhere, good, uplifting and redemptive after all.
“Has there even been a Jenny Ebert before now? Or just a chaotic mass of static, a confusion, a random scattering of stories? It feels like Jenny Ebert has only existed properly since she came to Sunset Promenade; seems as though it’s now only her experiences and stories are stacking up properly, making a real pattern.
She only started feeling like Jenny Ebert since she stopped trying to decide what Jenny Ebert should be.” (P. 181)
It adds meat to the bones of what is at heart a slight narrative but a wonderfully conjured-up and good for the spirit one at that.
Barnett has a pleasing way of telling tales that seem lighthearted and fey on the surface but which delve down, past the cliches, the Britishness of it all and the slightness of tone and style, to somewhere deep and meaningful.
In this case, to the idea, and it’s a profoundly important one in an age riven by disconnect and polarisation, that community, a sense of family, can grow in the most unlikeliest of people and between the most unlikely of people.
The residents of Sunset Promenade, a grand old house that is home to people with nowhere else to go run by brothers Barry (the garrulous, earnestly sincere one) and Barry (the hardheaded realist with a hidden heart of gold) contains a very unlikely assortment of idiosyncratic people, who are separated by age true but also by experience of life, or an obvious lack of it.
Somehow, through a series of events, none of which are all that consequential in and of themselves but fun to read about anyway, they come to appreciate how connectedness is something not to be feared or foregone but embraced, and embraced against your isolationist better instincts because there’s no tell the wonderful places it may lead.
You could damn The Lonely Hearts Cinema Club as light and insubstantial, and in some stylistic ways it is, but it is also emotionally-resonant and true, a testament to the power of togetherness, belonging and friendship, or is that family, and its power to change you in ways previously unimaginable and wholly, happily, transformative.