‘Welcome to St Ambrose Primary School. A world of friendships, fights and feuding. And that’s just the mothers’.
The Hive is a school gate saga, which runs from the beginning of the Autumn term through to the following September. We’re introduced to a bunch of mothers – there’s Rachel, the nice, normal, if slightly scatty one who is just recovering from her husband doing a runner; Bea, the Queen Bee who everyone wants to hang out with; Heather who tries too hard; Jo, the permanently downtrodden stressball; Georgie, ascerbic and refusing to get involved. The beginning of the book sees this long standing group expanded by the arrival of Bubba, best described as nice but dim, Melissa, a boringly perfect Fairy Godmother type and – of course – Tom Orchard, handsome new headmaster.
Most of the action takes place at drop off or pickup time, or at PTA related activities like the fundraising committee meeting, the Lunch Ladder or the Lakeside Ball. This leads to something of a whirlwind narrative; conversations are left unfinished, misunderstandings have room to flourish, we never find out quite what’s going on behind the facade. This is of course an accurate reflection of life at the school gates – half formed friendships that never have a chance to blossom, snatched snippets of conversation, wondering if that person is really in a hurry or if you (or your kids) have done something randomly wrong. However, the very accuracy of the device leads to the book’s biggest downfall – I did not get to know any of the characters enough to really care what happened in their lives. I mean I know I was supposed to be looking forward to Rachel and Tom getting together, and I know I was supposed to be glad that the new Queen Bee of the playground seemed to be a force for good rather than the shallow and heartless Bea, but really? I just wasn’t that bothered.
I would have liked to know more about the children too – perhaps this is the mother in me speaking but for a novel based at the school gates, they seemed conspicuous by their absence – even in the life of Rachel, the main protagonist. Right now I can’t actually remember the name of a single one of the kids belonging to this gaggle of mothers and while I get that the novel is about female friendship rather than motherhood, perhaps some more about the children and their interactions would have provided a bit more depth to the mothers themselves.
There were some potentially serious themes in the book – a parent’s suicide; classroom bullying (pretty much unnoticed by the mothers); Heather’s growth in confidence being accompanied by a growth in meanness; but these were treated to much the same haphazard narrative as the more lighthearted events that make up the bulk of the book, and as such, did not add anything at all. I also personally found the final flourish of Bea’s downfall somewhat unnecessary. I’m all for comeuppance where it’s needed but the flippant references to Zimmer frames and the need for a carer – along with the complete lack of interest from the supposedly good hearted main characters – left a sour taste in my mouth.
I approached The Hive in the way that I’d approach a Catherine Alliott or an Adele Parks. Not the kind of reading matter I’d bring up in a job interview, sure, but usually enjoyable, amusing, and perfect holiday reading. I’m sorry to say that despite being generally well reviewed, I really was not that fussed on it at all. However – in the balance of fairness, you might like to read these other, far more positive reviews before making up your mind!
Sam Baker for The Sunday Times (paywalled so I haven’t read it – but quoted on the cover)
**Disclosure – I received a free copy of this book from Mumsnet and LittleBrown Books, in exchange for writing a review. I have not been otherwise recompensed for this post, nor have I been asked to say anything specific in the review.**