If you thought the cliques and schoolyard politics portrayed in teen comedy Mean Girls were confined to the realm of high school drama queens, think again. Gill Hornby’s debut novel, based, like Mean Girls, on Rosalind Wiseman’s Queen Bees and Wannabes, shows that the middle aged mothers of a country village school exhibit just as much back-stabbing bitchiness and petty power relations.
The Hive takes us through one year at St Ambrose primary school deep in the heart of middle class country suburbia, where the elite mums band together to help raise money for the creation of a new library. The image of community spirit and team work is soon revealed to be an idealistic façade and the fundraising soon turns into a popularity contest as the women compete to win the favour of Queen Bee mum, Bea.
Hornby plays on very distinct stereotypes to satirise and critique COSTA (Committee of St Ambrose); there’s the outcast Heather who’s always desperate to be included, the down to earth and loud mouthed Georgie who prefers to be the superior outsider, the new arrival Bubba who struggles to leave the high-flying society of the upper class for a more simplistic country lifestyle and main protagonist Rachel, freshly dumped by her husband and wondering why she’s been left out in the cold by Bea. Although the stereotypes are rather amusing initially, it’s difficult not to get irritated after a while. Hornby makes great use of free indirect speech to really get inside the character’s minds and personalities, but leaves you wondering whether we would witness more intelligence and maturity in their eight year old children. The naively pretentious Bubba for example, rambles on like, “And suddenly, just like that, she had what she liked to call one of her light bulb moments. Ding! She thought. Then doubted herself. Did light bulbs actually go ding? What did she mean? Flash! Or just tah-dah! Anyway, the point was, she had a stonkingly brilliant idea”.
There are points of pure hilarity in the novel which, especially if you have any experience of this type of playground politics, will make you genuinely laugh out loud. The disastrous English Seaside in Winter Lakeside Ball and the ‘climax’ of the School Quiz were particularly memorable moments, however these were interspersed between the rather more mundane day-to-day life of school pick ups and drop offs, coffees and committee meetings, which many might find rather tedious. Hornby is effective at picking apart the St Ambrose community, and exposing its flaws and hypocrisies, but she struggles to move beyond the stereotypes and the ending feels inadequate and rushed, with many issues remaining unresolved.
It’s clear to see why there was a such a bidding war over The Hive’s publishing rights, as its ideal audience of middle aged female readers dominate the book market, but anyone beyond that category might find this book just a little bit too repetitive and predictable.
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