The Hive, by Gill Hornby. If you’re reading this blog post as a mum with school-age children, you’ll no doubt have heard of this book. It describes you. Don’t be offended because it describes me. It apparently describes the life of every mother of primary school-age children that you know.
Gill Hornby's The Hive. A wonderful way to relax this holiday. ZZzzzzz
Narrator Rachel is a children’s book illustrator. She’s recently separated from her two-timing husband (who sounds like such a dork, even given Rachel’s possibly biased views, that you’d run miles to avoid him). She likes the school her children attend, but is happy to avoid too many extracurricular activities at the school gate. Or so she thinks.
In contrast, most of the book’s other characters actively race into PTA duties. Rachel starts the novel at the beginning of a new school year, and physically at the edge of a buzzing circle of mums. They’re all vying for the attention of queen bee mum, Beatrice. Beatrice’s entire raison d’etre, when not finessing her daughter’s perfect plaits or helping her son practice his sprinting/high jump/Mandarin, is to organise the school PTA. She’s chair, a time-heavy role that Beatrice does just for the good of the school. Or does she? It quickly becomes apparent that boring jobs, such as sorting stinky laundry for a fund-raising car boot sale, is delegated to less in-favour mums. This leaves Beatrice to choose the activities that interest her, and hang out with the current crop of favoured mums.
The rest of the mums have to be content to buzz in the background, because to be in the committee is to be in on everything, from morning fitness sessions to charitable ladies-who-lunch meals. Having lost her best mates status with Beatrice, Rachel is no longer on the fast track to PTA fun. When Rachel challenges her about their friendship, Beatrice explains it wouldn’t be right to ‘take sides’ after Rachel’s separation. Though Rachel pretends not to care she still takes an awful lot of interest in what Beatrice gets up to. Nor does she hide her joy when Beatrice has a nasty (gratuitously so – like an Enid Blyton character suddenly being poisoned by a bottle of fizzy pop) accident at the end of the book. She even reports that Beatrice is ‘fat’, one of the worst things you can be in Hornby’s world of diva mums and beyond desperate housewives.
The plot lurches from numerous PTA crisis to the excitement of the arrival of a new and handsome headmaster. He just happens to be single, and I don’t think it’s giving too much of a plot spoiler to raise a chick-lit-aware eyebrow as to the identity of the mum who ends up on the headmaster’s arm. Obviously it’s the recently separated illustrator because fabulous men are always waiting in the wings ready to snap up suddenly single mothers, at least in Hornsby’s world. Oh, and Rachel has been so miserable that she’s lost weight, and the only thing better than a single mother is a thin single mother, right?
PTA and love-interest cliches dealt with; there are many more. Bubba, the newcomer to the village and to the school is from a city unspecified (but you just know it’s London – everyone outside the capital loves thinking that London mums do little more than tantrum when they can’t get soy milk with their latte). She wibbles on about designer clothes, can’t wait to start organising a fund-raising ball in her Polish gardener-tended grounds, and is endlessly trying to get her children assessed as gifted. Another character is of the earth mother variety, a former lawyer married to a farmer. She keeps producing children so she can escape ‘real life’ (her words, not mine). Despite living in a chaotic and slightly filthy house still manages to whip up lunch for 12 in less than half an hour with little more than a couple of baby beetroot she’s grown herself.
The mothers all are wearingly one-dimensional and unbelievable. The only character I vaguely recognised from the various schools my children have attended was the mother who was desperate to get in with the hive. Slightly plump (obviously…) she starts wearing the same clothes as queen bee and her gang, gets roped in to do all the dirty work, and doesn’t seem to notice there’s a world outside the school gates. I’ve seen lots of women just like her, perhaps feeling a bit empty of nest and seemingly looking to recreate their own miserable school days, but positively this time around. As if. Poor Heather cooks a birthday lunch for queen mum, and only finds out just before serving it that queen and her posse have gone on a birthday spa trip. Even then it takes Heather to the end of the book to realise that queen mum & co ‘just aren’t really very nice’.
On it goes, from one boring school situation (the ball committee) to another (the head calling Rachel in for a meeting in his office). He wants her to draw a timeline of the school for a new library that everyone is frantically fundraising for. Which, by the way, is both built and beautiful by the time the book is over, which is a complete school year. Oh yes, the wonderful fundraisers and ex-City headmaster have raised the dough and physically built the library in less than 10 months. Mr Gove take note.
The school yard can be a wonderful place, full of warm, intelligent and empathetic human beings. Most aren’t talented illustrators able to take husbands leaving them in their stride, few would even dream of picking up a new headmaster, however wealthy. Earth mothers abound, but I can’t say I’ve met one who produces sprogs simply to avoid PTA committee roles. And I don’t know anyone who has time to join exercise classes every morning, splurge fortunes on spa days out, and spend hard-earned cash on endless charity balls and lunches.
The Hive is the British primary school as the Daily Mail might imagine. Shiny children, super-pushy mothers, sports days on green playing fields. The only thing the Mail might query is the lack of dads. Hornby depicts a middle-class haven of privilege, but it’s a women-only zone – surely you’d expect some doting daddies? Men get occasional walk-on parts, to wave a chequebook or in one instance to make a drunken pass at Rachel. Hey, she’s single, what can she expect?. One father, again who is never seen but only occasionally discussed, mainly for being useless, commits suicide.
It’s a vaguely amusing holiday read of the type that’s ideal for when you still have to concentrate. Say when you’re on a sunlounger and your five-year-old is jumping in and out of the pool, or wandering off down the beach. But I can’t promise it won’t raise your blood pressure, and not in a good way.