Book Review: Old Romantics by Maggie Armstrong #OldRomantics @TrampPress @MaggieStrongarm @RichardsonHelen

Blog tour, Book reviews, Books By Apr 23, 2024 No Comments

Maggie Armstrong’s linked collection of short stories, Old Romantics, explores a young Dublin woman’s life through from her early adulthood to a fractious blended family life in the pandemic.

Whether a catastrophic road trip, an ill-advised career move or a sinister encounter on the beach, these stories dig at the heart of what it is to be alone and alienated in your world.

The heroes of these escapades are thickly masked and often unreliable as they pursue each other. Love is sometimes obsessive and often delusional. Motivations are slippery, expectations are shattered, and self-knowledge is hard-won yet inevitable.

If you were under any illusions about these short stories prior to reading them, then Number One sets the tone for this modern collection well. An unnamed narrator leaves her office in search of a four-cheese sandwich and instead loses it and much more to the same random man she encounters in the sandwich shop. It feels as if it’s both chance and a casual event, which could easily not have occurred at all, while also being quite calculating.

For a long time, she had treasured this uniqueness of hers, but the thing had gone rusty on her, and she guessed that getting rid of it would be painful but forgettable, a quick job. – Number One

One of my personal favourites is the second story, The Dublin Marriage, about two young people who share a house together and, thanks to how someone sets them up to her, she creates a home while he simply goes about living his life. It’s brilliantly funny and also quite a sad take on how two people view things so disparately.

The Old Boys makes clever use of former writers and repetition before we launch headlong into the wild road trip to New York and beyond which the title story takes us on. Old Romantics, and Walls’ reappearance in Baked Alaska a few stories on, helps to cement him as a key character, one with all his idiosyncrasies. You wonder sometimes what these two people have in common with one another in the first place.

The later stories from Trouble onwards all feature the same relationship in various states of disrepair and again there is a sense of remove between the mother Margaret and her children, step- or biological, although they clearly do play or craft together at times, and it does fall to her to homeschool them during the pandemic. The focus seems to be more on her biological child, rather than the two step-children, and ultimately the relationship with her boyfriend, though.

She eyed me, from the end of the bed, as if she had never come upon such laziness and lack of will. As if I was the first woman she had ever met that was so impudent as to do this. – Maternity Benefit

Maternity Benefit cleverly looks at the unspoken rules that exist while Two Nice People offers a temporary respite from the relationship with her and her son on a break away at the beach and looks at how others view her and her son looking in, while also providing her view of themselves. Finally, there are a couple of work stories, My Success, and My Mistake, where she struggles to hold down seemingly pointless canteen/office jobs.

Maggie Armstrong tells her stories in Old Romantics unfiltered: they’re funny, and edgy while also being brutally honest and unshrinking; they find pleasure in the everyday while chasing the calamity until it’s backed up into a corner and comes out fighting; the protagonist sharing the author’s name only ensures we’ll be confusing her with her main character, rather than seeing these stories as separate from those of the author’s own life. Well worth taking yourself off to Dublin for this modern-day woman’s collection of linked stories and enjoying its freshly pungent voice. It’s liberating in its scope and nuanced in its fine observation.

Old Romantics by Maggie Armstrong is published by Tramp Press and is available in paperback. You can purchase it from Amazon UK (affiliate link), (affiliate link), Hive and Waterstones.

Maggie Armstrong’s work has appeared in the Dublin Review, The Stinging Fly, Banshee, Belfield Literary Review and elsewhere. She was nominated for a 2023 Irish Book Award. She lives in Dublin.

Thanks to Helen Richardson for inviting me to join the blog tour.


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