Anne Fine - Madame Doubtfire (1987)
100 Best Scottish Books of all Time
Three children, a stressed mum, a depressed dad, two hamsters and a quail. It's not happy families. Anne Fine's seminal text on divorce has the lightness of touch and grip of gravity that marks this multi-award winner as one of the finest children's writers of her generation. Daniel Hilliard has moved out of the family home, has his kids over for tea every Tuesday and sees them every other weekend. He's an out of work actor who doesn't deal well with domestic chores; Miranda, his ex-wife isn't impressed. She can't help being neurotic and he can't stop wanting to kill her in 100 different ways, as he regularly acts out in mime. Lydia, Christopher and Natalie are caught in the crossfire.
Fine evokes the depressing hostility of the atmosphere and its effects on the children with subtle perception: how they all become tense when the phone goes, anticipating a row; how they become silent and withdrawn when their dad makes undermining jokes about mum; how they tolerate miserably their dad's deliberate misunderstanding when they say they want to go 'home'. The dynamics and personalities come vividly into the reader's mind, and while Fine doesn't spare the bitter edges, there's a dry humour too. There's also a lot of love struggling to express itself in better ways and, of course, there's Madame Doubtfire.
The cross-dressing housekeeper who becomes saviour to Miranda and smokes cheroots on the stairs is Daniel in disguise. His ruse to spend time with his family all comes to a high-farce climax when his other job - being a model for the local life class - spectacularly collides with char duty. Fine explores complex emotion and plots a cracking tale that keeps the pages whizzing by, sneaking in wisdom gently. It's no wonder she is so loved by her many devoted fans.
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