Although generally a law-abiding citizen, I got caught for speeding a few months ago. Twice. As a result, I ended up attending a Speed Awareness Course, part of which involved watching a video reconstruction of a terrible motorway pile-up. The 1991 accident happened on a stretch of the M4 in Berkshire, when a van driver skidded into the central reservation.Within 19 seconds, 51 vehicles were involved, leaving 10 people dead and 25 injured. I found the video sobering and whilst discussing it with friends, they told me about the Penny Vincenzi novel ‘The Best of Times‘ which centres upon an M4 crash.
Various circumstances conspire to bring the cast of the book’s characters to the motorway on the 22nd August in question. Jonathan, a successful hospital consultant is with his lover, Abi. Mary is on her way to a reunion with a wartime sweetheart. Georgia hitches a lift with Paddy, a van driver whilst Toby and Barney are pulled over for speeding, late for Toby’s wedding. From above the motorway, William Grainger watches as the motorway horror unfolds. The novel follows the characters through the crash to the subsequent investigations and hospital treatments, as everyone affected tries to re-build their lives.
At almost 900 pages, ‘The Best of Times’ is quite a commitment. It could be an enjoyable read, but for several things. Firstly, and probably most importantly, the characters are totally unlikeable and overtly stereotypical: the men, almost without exception, are lying, cheating bastards, leaving behind them a trail of embittered women. The female characters are equally disagreeable, ranging from needy teen Georgia, to the arrogant and argumentative Linda to doormat Maeve. Secondly, the plot and sub-plots are almost twee, predictable and uninspiring – there was no real drama or surprise, everything turned out pretty much as it would in a fairytale. Thirdly, the book is way, way too long, resulting in me whizzing through the last 100-pages to tidy up the storylines. Had I not been writing a review, I honestly wouldn’t have bothered.
In the right hands, this could have been a skilful and sensitive exploration of the devastation caused by road traffic accidents. But, done the Ms Vincenzi way it was, well, a complete car crash of a book. I would definitely swerve to avoid this one.