The first time I read the words “Mean Girls for moms”—a blurb adorning the back cover of forthcoming Gill Hornby novel The Hive—I threw up a little bit in my mouth.
Don’t get me wrong: I love Mean Girls. I watch the shit out of Mean Girls. But describe a book to me as “a tart vivisection of mother culture” and I’m already dozing off. Or running in the other direction.
The Hive—a debut novel for Hornby, whose brother is, yes, the fantabulous Nick Hornby—is pretty highly anticipated, as books go. (Released in the UK in May, it goes on sale here in September). The novel inspired a seven-way bidding war among publishers, and Focus Features has already bought the movie rights. At this very moment, some studio executive may be out in search of quirky middle-aged women to play each of The Hive’s caricatural leading ladies.
And who are these ladies? Well. There’s Rachel, our protagonist of sorts, whose husband recently left her for an intern. There’s Georgie, hilarious and uncouth mother of six, whose notion of “joining in” is muttering sarcastic quips from the sidelines. We have Heather, over-eager and desperately insecure mother of one, and of course Beatrice—Bea—the queen of the moms, the Regina George, the HBIC.
These and a troop of other women—Jo, Clover, Collette, Sharon, Jasmine and newbie-in-town Melissa—make up a portion of the moms of St. Ambrose, a friendly but underfunded state school in suburban England (or whatever one calls a suburb in England). Together—along with their husbands, children, and new St. Ambrose headmaster Tom Orchard—the women navigate the complex political machinations of Mothering a School-Age Child: community events, extra-curricular activities, fundraising dinners, fundraising lunches, fundraising charity events, fundraising balls, and various other incarnations of fundraising.
On its face, The Hive sounds like a blatant play for the attentions of moderately vapid female readers, the type of women who sent Fifty Shades of Grey to the top of the NYT bestseller list. (I say this judgily, but I actually read all three FSOG books.) And to some degree, The Hive very much is that book. It’s about petty arguments and frivolous conflicts and a cadre of women whose lives revolve entirely around their children and one another (and one-another’s children). Some of the conversations in The Hive are even cringe-worthy, particularly if you’re a 20-something female who aspires to never sit around a coffee shop discussing your friend’s sister’s daughter’s fifth-grade test scores.
But what makes The Hive tolerable/special/good is (ahem) exactly what is implied by analogizing it to Mean Girls. (Both The Hive and Mean Girls are loosely based on the same advice book.) Hornby knows these things—and these women—are ridiculous, and knows that this particular brand of ridiculousness seems to emerge when one pops miniature humans out of one’s lady parts. And while much of The Hive feels like parody, or at the very least exaggeration, Hornby does highlight how the very school-based communities intended to elevate the experience of students also breed a special brand of adult one-upmanship.
Hornby has the same natural ease with dialogue as her brother, and there are some really nice turns of phrase in The Hive (Georgie refers to adult women calling each other best friends as “mutton employing the semantics of lamb;” fate is described as a “violent, mindless hooligan.”) Also, by creating a collection of “types” — the leader, the joiner, the introvert, the misanthrope — Hornby invites female readers to play the same “Are you a Carrie or a Miranda?” game we’ve been engaged in since Sex and the City premiered in 1998. Me, I’d like to think I’m a Georgie: grumpy, sarcastic, dismissive, and also generally good-hearted. But I think the truth — and the point — is that we’re all a little bit of all of them. A little bit of snarky Georgia, and prideful Deborah, and pissed-off Jo, and anxiety-ridden Heather. And yes, at our worst and most manipulative moments, a little bit of bossy, bitchy, bratty Bea.
TITLE: The Hive
AUTHOR: Gill Hornby
PAGES: 352 (in hardcover)
ALSO WROTE: What look like kids books?
SORTA LIKE: …Mean Girls for moms
FIRST LINE: “There was Bea, standing over the other side, in the shade of the big beech tree.”