I’m very excited to welcome author Ruth Leigh to the blog to share a little about her two brilliant novels, The Diary of Isabella M Smugge and The Trials of Isabella Smugge, and all the joys and heartache that real, honest motherhood and parenting bring!
By Ruth Leigh
A couple of years ago, the answer to the questions, “What do you do?” would have been these. Mother of three. Freelance writer. Occasional book reviewer. Daughter to two elderly parents. Wife to the sainted Mr Leigh. If you’d told me that I’d write and publish a novel in lockdown then eight months later bring out the sequel, I wouldn’t have laughed in your face (I’m far too polite), but I’d have had a quiet chortle to myself once we’d said our goodbyes.
And yet as I write this, I’m sitting in a Costa in Dundee with my agent and three other writers at a book signing. I mean, come on! #livingthedream
I appear to be a novelist and I have to tell you; it feels pretty good. The children are teenagers now and weirdly enough, I’m finding that having three separate hormone-filled entities in the house is easier than parenting little children. I wasn’t great at that. The constant demands, the wailing, the strange dietary requirements (“You know I can’t have my pasta in the light blue bowl, Mummy!”), the constant shuttling from nursery to school to toddlers and back again – it did my head in. I was constantly comparing myself to the other mums and coming up short. Why couldn’t I be as calm/organised/thin/made-up as them?
When I wrote the Diary of Isabella M Smugge, I had a clear picture of our heroine (an insanely successful lifestyle blogger and Instagram mumfluencer), beautifully dressed and perfectly made-up, swanning on to the playground at her children’s new primary school, her head full of trending tweets and hashtags and increased reach. The rest of us worry about having the book bags packed and naming the uniform, but not Issy Smugge. One reviewer put it like this.
“Lifestyle blogger, bestselling author, interior designer and photographer, Isabella is an endlessly manipulative and relentlessly poised individual whose move to the country places her like a glossy bird of paradise amongst the apparently dowdy peahens of her Suffolk village. Her three children are pressed into service as accessories to her blog, featuring in one tastefully photographed setting after another. Except, of course, the peahens – the mothers of the local schoolchildren – are utterly unimpressed.”
Issy’s Latvian au pair Sofija does all the grunt work (cooking, sewing in name tags, discipline) while our heroine swans about churning out carefully curated content to her adoring followers.
At the end of the first book things are anything but perfect. By the time we meet Issy again in the Trials of Isabella M Smugge, she’s a lone parent with an unplanned fourth baby on the way. Her paid help is limited to a housekeeper, a gardener, her agent and her manicurist. How’s a girl to cope?
I spent time thinking about how these catastrophic life changes would affect Issy. At the beginning of Trials, she’s in denial about even being pregnant, and is working super hard to keep all her Insta-friendly plates spinning. Having given birth naturally on the NHS (imagine!) she lies in bed gazing at her newborn son, unsure of what to do next. For the first few months of his life, she refers to him as, “the baby” and it’s only as time goes by that she slowly begins to bond with him. It’s a slow, painful process for her and there are implications of post-natal depression.
One of the things that keeps our Instamum going is the friendship and support she finds on the playground. Normal, down-to-earth mums who wouldn’t know a Facebook algorithm if it smacked them round the face reach out to her and show her that it is possible to bring up children alone while working if you don’t mind dropping a few balls along the way.
And therein lies the humour. I spent the first few years of motherhood with unbrushed hair, wild staring eyes and stained clothing. This isn’t an option for our Instamum so how does she cope? You’ll have to read the book to find out.
Isabella joins not one but two toddler groups, starts going to church from time to time and slowly, creakingly begins to develop some kind of workable self-knowledge. Her new friends come from a wildly different world – no trust funds or Georgian rectories or unlimited cash for them – and yet their warmth and empathy start to soften Isabella’s chilly heart.
Whether you’re living hand to mouth and buying value nappy sacks or residing in a gracious Grade II mansion with money to burn, when it comes to the trials of motherhood and juggling work with family life, there’s something for everyone in Issy Smugge’s chronicles. It’s the tiny joys that keep us all going on that long, hard road of parenting. Spontaneous laughs in the nursery corridor, an unexpected offer of babysitting from a friend, a coffee with the girls.
To find out how Issy copes (or not), you can visit my shop for a signed first edition with merch (https://www.ruthleighwrites.co.uk/shop) or find her in all good bookshops and online at Eden, Waterstones and Amazon.
Perhaps happiness is just a hashtag away.
Ruth Leigh is a freelance writer and novelist, and is married with three children, one husband and assorted livestock. She blogs at Big Words and Made Up Stories and for More Than Writers and Authors Electric, and is a recovering over-achiever. Her website can be found at www.ruthleighwrites.co.uk. She lives in Suffolk.