Book review: The Miseducation of Evie Epworth by Matson Taylor

(cover image courteys Simon & Schuster Australia)

One of the most delightful parts of reading a book is discovering the characters who, if written well, play a key role in the story of which you are now, as a reader, a part.

While you are not part of the story per se, it can often feel like you are very much involved in the storyline in ways that go beyond interested bystander, finding out things before the protagonist knows about them, being aware of others’ motivations and actions before anyone else is and being emotionally invested in the narrative’s outcome.

This feeling of intimate involvement with a novel and it central character is more pronounced when you develop an emotional attachment to them, something which is every much in joyful evidence in Matson Taylor’s delightful debut novel, The Miseducation of Evie Epworth.

Playfully quirky title aside, and this reviewer has quite the thing for them truth be told, the main attraction of the book is its titular protagonist who is a sixteen-year-old girl with a deep love of books and reading, living on a farm in Yorkshire in 1962 who isn’t entirely sure what she wants from life but knows that it must be exciting and NOT involve working in a hairdressing salon (if possible it must defy all gender expectations of the time), that there are bonus points if it involves glamour and a London residence, and that it must tick more boxes than being a domestic goddess.

Evie is also devoted to her dad Arthur, a handsome man who has raised her singlehandedly since his wife and Evie’s mother died when our favourite protagonist was only six-months-old, and who is a source of endless love and support.

“A proper job. Or a Career, as Mrs Scott-Pym would say. That’s not actually a bad idea. I imagine myself as an Independent Woman. Like Mrs Scott-Pym’s daughter, Caroline. I could go to glamorous parties and film premieres and meet friends for cocktails in sophisticated bars. Yes, I think I’d like having a Career. It’d be great. I could be a doctor. A journalist. A lawyer.” (P. 95)

Alas, he is also the one who brings manipulative gold digger Christine into the family, a woman who begin her association with Evie’s cosy family of two as the young housekeeper before quickly worming her way into Arthur’s affections while making it very clear she intends to remark Evie’s life in ways entirely not to her liking.

We are party to her base, simplistic, avaricious plans and ambitions well before anyone else thanks to Evie who is all too aware that all Christine is a posh lifestyle and she doesn’t care what she has to do to get it.

She is, quite simply, the almost Vaudevillian villain in the piece, but Taylor goes to a great deal of trouble to not tip her into cartoon evil territory, keeping just grounded enough that you can believe that Arthur might be sort of smitten with her, and that others in the village, like Doris Swithenbank ( a close friend of Christine’s put-upon mother Vera who’s as clueless and morally bankrupt as her daughter), might treat her well.

Her true comically-tinged evil is only really evident to Evie, and her neighbour and surrogate grandmother/mother Mrs Scott-Pym, and it’s through the teenager’s very astute eyes that we come to see Christine for who she really is long before anyone else does.

These reveals happen chiefly through Evie’s gift for hilariously cutting, pithy oneliners, both within her head and without – she is not afraid to stand up to her nemesis and does so often and with grace, style and the kind of scathing retorts we all wish we could summon in moments of great emotional stress – which Taylor delivers in such a way that our beloved protagonist never once feels bratty or unbearably rudely precocious.

Matsin Taylor (image courtesy Curtis Brown)

For Evie is, at heart, a sweet and lovely, well-meaning girl.

She may not have life figured out, and there are times when she does get things wrong, but overall, she is a brightly incisive young woman who loves her dad, loves those close to her and simply wants a fabulous life like Mrs Scott-Pym’s estranged daughter Caroline who ends up becoming the big sister Evie never had.

The Miseducation of Evie Epworth could be painted as simply one of those light and frothy slice-of-life English dramas where protagonists come alive, rights are wronged and hopes fulfilled with quirky goings-on and witty bon mots aplenty.

Those books are delightful, and one of the genres to which this reviewers is endlessly devoted, but The Miseducation of Evie Epworth goes beyond these humourously heartwarming surrounds, painting a picture of a young woman on the cusp of womanhood who adores ’60s Britrish heartthrob Adam Faith, and her dad and who doesn’t want to life to change even as she most certainly does.

So, pretty much like all of us at that age, right?

“Caroline smiles back. ‘Curiouser and curiouser. They should have called you Alice.’

(Actually I often wander off into a literary daydream inserting myself into various book titles and imagining what the consequences would be. Evie Flanders. Evie of Green Gables. Evie Poppins. Evie Eyre. Evielina. Evie of the D’Urbervilles (hopefully with a much happier ending). My definitive favourite, though, is Evie in Wonderland. I can easily see myself falling down a rabbit hole and having tea with a mad hatter and getting on the wrong side of a bad-tempered queen. Where exactly is my Wonderland, though? Is it in my sworl-of-cashmere, fully parented past? Or is it out there somewhere, unseen, lost in the messy blur of my future?)” (P. 264)

What makes The Miseducation of Evie Epworth such an unparalleled delight is the way it mixes together this coming-of-age tale with a little magic, a lot of unpalatable reality but the rich trappings of effervescent dreams and star-studded hopes and a whole lot of love and friendship.

Evie may not have all the answers but she is surrounded by people who have enough of the pieces that together, they can make some transformingly wonderful things happen, with our excitable, emotionally-intuitive and sound technology-gifted young protagonist fulfilling her dreams in ways even more vivaciously energetic that she expected.

All the characters in The Miseducation of Evie Epworth are big and bold and tons of fun, yes even Christine, infusing the novel with the air of thoroughly modern fairytale where the protagonist doesn’t so much wait for the fairy godmother to turn up as make it all happen herself, with lots of loving help and in ways that are both an absolute treat to read and moving and life-affirming into the bargain.

Matson Taylor has delivered up a rare and wonderful prize to readers who want to feel like they are living life alongside the characters in the books they read – a protagonist who is so warm, lovable, funny and excited about life that you will want, like BFF Maggie to be her bestie, a cast of characters so deliciously out there that spending time with them seems like the best things that could ever happen to me and a setting in which life isn’t always easy but where this is all kinds of joy and possibility to be (eventually) had.

The Miseducation of Evie Epworth is a gem, exactly the right book we need in our COVID-addled times before it dares to imagine what might be beyond an unlikable present, believing that the future, all evidence to the contrary, all things wonderful and scintillatingly good.

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