Daisy Chain

Maggie Ritchie

Two Roads, £16.99

Review by Jan Patience

As she showed in her debut novel, Paris Kiss, Glasgow-based author Maggie Ritchie writes with ease about female friendship as women move through the vicissitudes of life. Like her first novel, Ritchie's third book, Daisy Chain, revolves around the lives and loves of two unlikely friends making their way in male-dominated worlds. In this novel, our two heroines are both Scottish, having spent their early years in Kirkcudbright in Dumfries and Galloway. Lily Crawford is an aspiring artist and the only child of the local doctor and his amateur artist wife, while Jeanie Taylor is the eldest child of a single mother of a band of children.

Jeanie's saving grace, and one which offers a potential escape from poverty, is that she has been taught ballet by Tatiana, wife of a local tinker and one time prima ballerina with a leading Russian ballet company.

The action begins and ends in the artists' town of Kirkcudbright, travelling via Glasgow and Shanghai over the course of nearly 30 years. We are introduced to our heroines' respective characters as young girls in Kirkcudbright in 1901. Ritchie paints a vivid picture of two bright, inquisitive wee girls weaving a daisy chain in the late afternoon heat of a summer's day. Their knockabout chatter is suddenly interrupted by the mischievous Jeanie turning cartwheels before settling into a series of ballet poses.

The pair dream about their future lives as they lark around. "Tell me again where we'll live when we are grown women?" Jeanie asks Lily. "In my studio in Glasgow," Lily replies.

Weaving fact and fiction together, in the first of several cameos by well-known artists (not always named), the girls realise they are being watched by "the artist from the pink house on the High Street". Before they race down the hill, Jeanie complains he hasn't paid her the penny he promised for painting her and her wee sisters "down by the burn".

The artist is "Glasgow Boy", EA Hornel, famous for his idealised and highly decorative paintings of children at play. As Ritchie explains in a historical note at the end of the book, which is subtitled, A Novel of the Glasgow Girls, the plot was inspired by the eventful lives of a group active in the first few decades of the 20th century known as The Glasgow Girls.

The pioneering work of these students and teachers at the Glasgow School of Art (GSA), which included Charles Rennie Mackintosh's wife Margaret Macdonald and her sister Frances, was recognised and celebrated in its day. Gradually though, the Girls' names faded from the art history books.

After seeing an exhibition about the Glasgow Girls in GSA's subsequently fire-ravaged Mackintosh Building (The Mack) in 2010, Ritchie became intrigued by a bright-eyed self-portrait of Eleanor Allen Moore.

Moore's life took her from a childhood in Kilmarnock to art school in Glasgow and on to Shanghai in China with her doctor husband and their daughter. She lit the spark which led Ritchie to create the character of Lily.

Maggie Ritchie's background as a journalist gives her a head-start when it comes to delving into characters' heads and keeping readers engaged with short, sharp chapters which keep the action rolling along.

Although I enjoyed her descriptions of artsy Glasgow in the heady days before the First World War, for me the novel came alive when the narrative moved to Shanghai.

Ritchie received a Society of Authors grant to travel in Moore's footsteps and you can almost smell the hot, fetid air of the so-called "Paris of the East" as Lily navigates her way around the city. Not to mention life as a young wife and mother whose troubled husband hides a dark secret.

It is female friendship – not love – which conquers all for likeable Lily and straight-talking Jeanie in this evocative and highly readable novel.