Shelf Life by Livia Franchini is a quirky novel structured around a shopping list written in the week our central character, Ruth, finds that her relationship of ten years has come to an end. Everyday shopping items like eggs, tomatoes, soup, pizza all take on significance and give us clues which gradually fill in the background to Ruth’s life and her relationship with ex-boyfriend Neil and others around her. It is an unusual premise, and what emerges is a clever, sometimes unsettling reflection on gender imbalances, toxic relationships (both with others and with ourselves), and resilience.
Each segment of the novel is quite short and is headed by an item on the shopping list. These vignettes are narrated by many different characters and in varying styles. As well as sections of more traditional narrative text, there are also text messages, email exchanges and other interesting bits and pieces which help to uncover more about Ruth and her life. It is a fun format, which had me flicking back through chapters to make sure I’d caught the link with the item on the list. It also makes Ruth a difficult protagonist to pin down. What we gradually learn about her life and state of mind, paints a darker and more concerning story than I’d expected.
All of Ruth’s relationships are a little troubled and I think that is why it works so well to not just hear her perspective, but also the views from others who interact with her. At first I was a little surprised that this included some passages from Neil’s perspective – did I really want to hear from him?! But as Ruth reflects in one of my favourite passages in the book, in their relationship she had to engineer herself to “occupy as little space as possible so he could be as large as he liked”. And wow does Neil like to take up space… He is an infuriatingly arrogant character who loves to write creepy, involved emails to younger women on dating sites. Pretty nauseating. So since he pushed Ruth out of so much of life, it’s really fitting (and often terrifying) that he takes up some of the pages.
We see Ruth’s schooldays mostly through snapshots of text messages and instant messages – which brought back fond but also slightly agonising memories of the days of dialling up the broadband after school (having only just left my friends a mere few hours ago!) Here we meet Alanna, who Ruth has a somewhat fraught friendship with – they are bonded through having known each other a very long time, but they are two are very different people.
Ruth also has a difficult relationship with food, which becomes most startlingly apparent in a scene where Ruth visits her mother for their Sunday chicken dinner tradition. You’ll know this moment when you see it – it took me aback and was the first time it hit me that the book deals with some pretty troubling themes.
The shopping list structure is quite off-beat, but I thought it worked really well. The items are sometimes linked quite literally to the plot developments, but my favourite parts of the book were where the items took on particularly symbolic meanings.
It will be of no surprise to those who have read my blog before that I really engaged with the items that provided a route into explorations of feminism and gender. ‘Apples’ is one of those sections – here the fruit takes on different symbolic meanings as Ruth ponders on the flaws in her relationship and grieves for its loss. Another great segment for me was ‘Conditioner’ where Ruth reflects on gender conventions ingrained in society while getting ready for a hen-party. I won’t spoil things by describing too much of the significance each of the objects takes on, but safe to say they were definitely the sort of moments that had me excitedly scribbling down all sort of ideas and phrases.
If you’re looking for an experimental feminist book, with an intriguing central character, this is one for you. Shelf Life, by Livia Franchini publishes on the 29th August, with Doubleday.
Many thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.
Sophie @Sophie_Jo_Books 📚 🐾
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