Sally Higginson’s novel is one of those rare sagas where the protagonist’s wealth and upbringing make sense, while her father’s problems just feel wrong
Mildred Sorenson was born out of marriage in 1932, the daughter of wealthy parents. Her childhood was very calm. She married at 22, and moved with her family to the UK in 1950 when she was pregnant with Matthew. But though she had an easy upbringing, poverty looms behind the bright lies of her adult life, which are revealed in this novel.
Life for Mildred in Whitechapel begins with the tragic death of her best friend, Betsy, which is the last straw for her husband. The seeds for Mildred’s own loneliness are sown in the death of her mother, who died soon after giving birth to her. As her mental state worsens, she is driven to drink. One affair with a teacher lands her in court, and a string of psychiatric hospital stays follow.
Mildred’s father and Mildred’s stepmother move house each year, but it’s hard to think of a better home for her than the one her stepmother still lives in, 20 years after she and Mildred’s father divorced. But instead of caring for her grandfather, as had seemed likely, Mildred is ensnared in the machinations of a gambling addict who wanted to marry her. The lengths she goes to to resist him are cruelly exposed as manipulative, beginning with in-laws who won’t grant her siblings the inheritance they were expecting.
For Higginson’s writing to succeed, Mildred’s character has to emerge as something more than a standard, neat answer to patriarchal anxieties about wealth. She is flawed, insecure, and vulnerable, and her need to manipulate is inescapable. The fact that Mildred is given a lot of advice about how to be more like her father, and how to fall in love, makes them seem closer than they are. The result is that the book makes sense, but the criticism of her father feels unfair, simply because the situation is the wrong one.
• It’s Possible to Be Too Rich by Sally Higginson is published by Tin House (£12.99). To order a copy for £10.39 go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99