I'm going to try very hard to avoid spoilers in this post, but just in case I don't manage it particularly well the short version of my review is that Diana Tutton takes a difficult subject, handles it with sensitivity, produces something which still has relevance, and which is enjoyable to read. I really liked this book (a lot).
I was intrigued rather than enthusiastic about the premise for 'Mamma' - Joanna Mallings is widowed at 21 after a year of marriage and with a baby daughter. 20 years later Libby is engaged to marry Steven who at 35 is much nearer in age to Joanna (now 41). Libby and Steven end up having to move into Joanna's house, and what starts out as a strained relationship between mother and son in law as they try to accommodate each other slowly becomes something more intimate.
Joanna has been unlucky, she had reasonably expected to marry again, but the only man who offered was 20 years her senior and she wasn't interested. Then with the war and a daughter to focus on it's easy to see how opportunities to meet another partner might have been thin on the ground. And as any single woman in her 40's is likely to tell you - the good ones are all taken at this point - or so it always seems.
There's an inference that there haven't been many men in Joanna's orbit anyway - we meet her the day she moves house, and the only friend she's seen to make throughout the book is another woman who has no visible husband. That close proximity to Steven should prove troubling for her is almost inevitable under these circumstances. Quite apart from his personal charms (ordinary but nice) Joanna is suddenly both free from her responsibility for Libby, and reminded of what she's been missing.
For both Steven and Joanna their attraction is based on sympathy rather than anything obviously physical. She's not a type that he admires - his attraction to Libby by contrast is almost entirely physical, because in other ways at 20 her personality is fairly unformed and immature. The one thing that Tutton doesn't discuss is the possibility that in Steven, Libby might be looking for something of a father figure - but it's possibly implied in some of her responses to him, and her enthusiasm for returning to live with her mother.
The three central characters are well drawn, Steven is a decent man who's obviously in love with his young wife, who seems like an excellent choice for a serving army officer - her passion for order, efficiency, and convention will likely go down well amongst the other officers wives, but when the expected foreign posting doesn't happen things become complicated.
Libby is still young enough to want to cling to friends and family, sex is a duty that a good wife performs, and might even enjoy, but isn't something she seeks. She's over reliant on the opinions of her friends, and snobbish in a way that sometimes reads unpleasantly, but which she's also likely to grow out of as she experiences more of life. Libby's tory tendencies worry her mother, not because she doesn't share them, but because she didn't share them at Libby's age - she worries that her daughter is growing up with no imagination.
Joanna and Steven bond over a shared love of poetry, and a certain amount of shared life experience, they're close enough in age to be very much of a generation, to understand the world they both grew up in, and crucially to have developed the tastes and preferences that Libby lacks. And this is the crux of the book - the tension between physical desire, sympathy, and the need to love.
There's an interesting sub plot with Steven's mother which further explores that need to love and care for somebody which also underlines that romantic love is only one part of human relations, and not the most important part at that. This series is doing an excellent job of finding books that tackle complicated relationships with grace and insight. There's a lot in 'Mamma' which I haven't touched on, in a quiet way it has a lot to say, some of it unexpectedly frank. It's also an enjoyable book and Tutton gives us the possibility of a happy ending for Joanna which seems entirely realistic. I absolutely recommend this one and will be following the rest of the tour with interest.