The L-Shaped Room

l-shaped-roomJane Graham is 27 years old, unmarried, and pregnant. Her father, shocked at the news, has turned her out, and although she has a job that pays reasonably well, she knows she needs to save every penny she can, so she rents a small room at the top of a run-down house in a poor London neighborhood. Initially resistant to all offers of help, she soon gets past her pride and her prejudice and comes to rely on her housemates, especially a writer named Toby and a musician named John.

There’s a lot to like about this book. Author Lynne Reid Banks depicts Jane as a woman who is both worldly and innocent, free-thinking and conservative. She believes that there was nothing wrong with having sex outside marriage, but she regrets the encounter (her first and only time having sex) that got her pregnant. She doesn’t object to abortion, but feels distaste when it’s suggested. Especially given that the book was published in 1960, I could appreciate the way Jane would have been shaped by the general public attitudes of the time but also open to different ideas. There’s complexity and nuance in Banks’s characterization of Jane and her feelings about her situation that worked well for me.

What worked less well was the casual racism peppered throughout the book. To some degree, the racism is, I think, meant to be something Jane needs to grow out of. Her first reaction at seeing John, who is black, in her window is to scream, and comments about his smell are frequent. Not all of these comments are meant to be insulting, but they’re uncomfortable to read today. Jane gradually warms to John and grows to love him, and I think would regret her initial reaction to him.

There’s a similar problem with Toby’s Jewishness, although the character who makes the worst comments is described as anti-Jew and the narrative seems to disapprove of his attitude. I found Toby a frustrating character for other reasons. He’s a sensitive artist type, and Jane spends a lot of time agonizing over his feelings and what she can do to protect his talent. I didn’t like him, although I found his relationship with Jane to be interesting. I’m not convinced that we’re meant to love him as Jane does. Jane gets a lot of things wrong, and although Toby is not a bad person, there are plenty of reasons to think she gets him wrong. I understand the book has two sequels, and I’m curious as to whether and how Toby will figure into these.

One of the ideas that comes up throughout the book is the difficulty of relating to other people and the absolute necessity of doing so. Every single character has his or her own motivations for helping Jane (or not), and it’s not always possible for Jane to work out who is a good help and who isn’t. Sometimes the people who are trying to help aren’t actually helpful, and the best helpers aren’t always the kindest people. Luckily, Jane has pretty good enough instincts when it comes to serious matters to avoid disaster on a couple of occasions. What I liked is that characters are allowed to be a mix of good and bad, selfish and cruel. A little like this book, mostly good, but with wince-inducing moments of terribleness that I could only barely shake.

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19 Responses to The L-Shaped Room

  1. Deb says:

    I always get this book confused with Margaret Drabble’s rather similar THE MILLSTONE: both books were published in the 1960s and in both books the pregnancy results from a first sexual encounter; I guess we wouldn’t be sympathetic to a heroine who got pregnant after having sex a second time! Also in both books is a sense of the pregnant (but unmarried) heroine being cast adrift and coming in contact with people she wouldn’t necessarily have ever interacted with had she been either married or not pregnant.

    When I try to explain to my daughters (late teens to early twenties in age) the crushing catastrophe that being pregnant and unmarried was in previous times (even in the early seventies as I was coming of age) this is as blankly meaningless to them as the idea that people had to use different water fountains based on the color of their skin–it just does not compute. There’s even a lot of revisionism in historical fiction; I can’t tell you how many historical romances I’ve read where communities are completely understanding and supportive of unwed mothers. Uh, no, it didn’t happen like that! A book like THE L-SHAPED ROOM is a good corrective to that rosy idea.

    • Teresa says:

      I had the same thought about this being a first-time encounter. It would have been more daring if she’d been more sexually active. But I did like how it wasn’t just losing control or being taken advantage of. She was clear that she wanted to have sex and only hadn’t because it hadn’t worked out before.

      One of the reasons I like reading older books like this is that it does give a stronger sense of what the past was really like, even with little details like her friends’ wish that she wear a ring once she started showing.

  2. Jeane says:

    This sounds so completely different from the Lynne Reid Banks books I know- mainly the Indian the Cupboard series I loved as a kid. I hope my library has something like this.

    • Teresa says:

      I never did read Indian in the Cupboard books, but I wouldn’t have connected them with her. This is very much a book for adults, although I suppose it might get classed as Young Adult today.

  3. heavenali says:

    I have heard of this book of course – one of those book titles I have always known without knowing much about the book. I do like the sound of it although those racial elements would not sit comfortably.

    • Teresa says:

      It is a good book overall, and I think we are meant to be uncomfortable with some of the racial comments. And it’s no surprise that a book from that period that tackles race at all would get some things wrong by today’s standards.

  4. David says:

    An interesting review, I think I read this book 30+ years ago and can’t remember the details of the book (though I do remember that I enjoyed it, and went on to read the sequels).

    I may be wrong, but isn’t John gay? Or is that something I read into the story? I do remember thinking that – especially for the time – the book was very broad in terms of its characters, and perhaps was attempting to put a broad range of people in the foreground. So I think it was probably showing Jane doing some learning!

    • Simon T says:

      John is indeed gay, but I have a feeling that we don’t learn that until I later book?

    • Teresa says:

      We’re not told outright at the start that John is gay, but it’s hinted at very strongly pretty early on. I was surprised when Jane realizes it later that she hadn’t already put it together. I thought she knew already because the hints were so strong! And I agree about the broadness of the characters. That’s one of the book’s appeals, and I think Banks took some risks there that went awry, but I appreciate what she was trying to do.

  5. Jenny says:

    Isn’t this one of Simon’s all-time favorite books? It’s been on my list for a long time, but your review isn’t what I had somehow thought it was about at all. Interesting, the way we get ideas about books stuck in our heads.

    • Teresa says:

      I have a bunch of books on my list because of the way people praise them even though I don’t quite know what they’re about. This one was on my shelves for years, so I knew the premise, but it went in some surprising directions.

  6. Simon T says:

    I was just coming to say that this is one of my favourite books, and then I saw Jenny’s comment! Yes, it is :) I just love being immersed in the world of that building, and the group of people who live there. I think Lynne Reid Banks does that brilliantly, making the reader feel almost like a resident there. I agree that there are some moments which don’t make for pleasant reading now, but perhaps fewer than other novels of the time – and, particularly with John, I think Jane is supposed to be in the wrong, and learns better.

    The two sequels are good, but don’t take place in the building, and I missed the building terribly.

    • David Harris says:

      I think I’m going to have to do something I seldom do and reread.

    • Teresa says:

      Yes, some of the casual racism is very much of its time. I was mostly really uncomfortable with the obsession with John’s smell, which persisted right up to the end, even though I think overall John is someone we’re meant to respect. I liked him better than I did Toby! But I liked that Toby isn’t the best and nicest person in the house. That would feel too tidy. Having him be kind of a jerk makes that relationship complicated in a satisfying way.

  7. This is one of those 20th century classics that has been on my TBR pile for over a decade. I really have to get to it (and all those other Penguin books)! I had a sense of it as an important feminist novel, but didn’t realise it also engaged with race and sexuality.

    • Teresa says:

      She takes on a lot! The feminist aspects of the story are the most prominent and handled the most sensitively. The way she deals with race and sexuality struck me as well-meaning but often very clumsy.

  8. Oh I feel so very VERY uncomfortable with talk about the black character smelling some disapproved-of way. I do still want to read this, cause I hear good things about it, but blaaaaah, that’s a high bar to entry.

    • Teresa says:

      The comments about his smell aren’t all negative (or not meant to be, anyway). But they’re frequently employed as a way of marking out how he’s different that I was uncomfortable with it. And there are some other comments and unfortunate comparisons that bothered me, but it’s hard to know to what degree that’s because I’m reading with a 21st century American lens where certain references have implications that wouldn’t have been so obvious then. The way Jane’s situation is handled is really great, but I can see how the rest would make the book completely unpalatable for some readers.

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