Robyn Penrose is an English lecturer at the University of Rummidge, specialising in women's studies, who also teaches courses on the Industrial novel. Philip Swallow, who we know from Changing Places (the events of which precede this story by about ten years), persuades her to participate in an "Industry Year" initiative, which involves her spending a day a week as the "shadow" of Vic Wilcox, who's the managing director of a local engineering firm. Initially both scornful of one another, the two come to realise, as the book progresses, that each has much to learn from the other. This is quite cleverly done, with both Robyn and Vic finding themselves questioning their own previously held convictions.
I think this possibly is my favourite David Lodge novel and I was surprised to see that I'd not read it during the last two-and-a-half years. It doesn't play so many tricks on the reader, or at least, not in such an overt manner as Therapy, say, and the story is told more-or-less linearly, from the same third person view (unlike Changing Places or Thinks...).
The most striking thing about this book is how well the writing flows. It must have taken quite a lot of work to write this prose, but it reads effortlessly and is very impressive and enjoyable. In this respect it reminded me a bit of Middlemarch: I'm not sure if anyone could write this way spontaneously but it would be nice to think so.
Although there wasn't any tricksy stuff in the book, there were some nice subtexts, for example Robyn's explanation that 19th century novels ended with either a marriage, a legacy, emigration, or death. In the event, this novel ends with Robyn receiving a marriage proposal, a legacy, and an offer of a job abroad. And Robyn's description of the events of "North and South" to her tutor group foreshadows the experiences she'll have when she meets Vic.
Like many of his other books, Lodge doesn't seem to respect his characters very much. Or at least not at the start, where his description of Robyn's beliefs and ideas is almost sneering. But as the book progresses, it feels as if Robyn and Vic grow on Lodge and by the end they seem noble in spite of Lodges's attitude. Vic in particular really appears to grow through the experiences of the shadow scheme, and the book ends on a hopeful note for both of them, which I don't think is typical of the cynical Lodge. Maybe this is all deliberate on his part, but I like to think that he found himself becoming interested in the characters despite himself. I think the sympathetic feel is one of the reasons I like the book so much.
Re-read in 2017. I'm surprised it's twelve years since the last time. I think this may be my favourite Lodge book. Highlighted quite a few bits, I'll just quote one of them
'You could do something about it,' said Robyn, 'You're the boss. You could ban all pin-ups from the factory.'
'I could, if I was completely barmy. All I need is a wildcat strike over pin-ups.'
Completed : 03-Jul-2005 (audiobook)
Completed : 07-Nov-2017