Madison Flight is a divorce lawyer, nicknamed ‘the Chair-Scraper’ for the number of times she leaps to her feet arguing in court. She has been contrary since birth, putting her mother through six days of labour before eventually being pulled out by forceps. ‘Is she saying no?’ asks the doctor, perplexed by the distinctive ‘Naaaaaaaaah!’ sound of her new-born wail.
Madison’s life begins with her voicing dissent and argument fills every moment of her adult life. Even her commute involves her quarrelling with the ticket officer about purchasing the lowest fare (she objects to an Oyster card because she doesn’t want ‘to be tagged and tracked like a sheep in transportation’); accusing a man who has bought a child ticket of being a thief; shouting at schoolboys for listening to loud music in the quiet carriage; forcing a girl out of the priority seat to make way for an elderly man, who protests that he is ‘not that old’; objecting to a quotation from Dolly Parton on the information board; and berating a barista for making her coffee too weak. To many this might seem like an exhausting prelude to a day’s work; Madison, however, ‘suspected that arguing was her engine room. It was the generator that made the heat and energy that was keeping her alive.’
Why is Madison so argumentative? ‘In her view, if you didn’t fight for everything, you fought for nothing.’ Perhaps she ought to be applauded for being a crusader, but although she inspires affection in the reader, in the novel her contrariness is largely received as a negative trait. Madison’s actions on her commute spark ‘accusing’ looks, ‘moans’, ‘sighs’, and insults of ‘killjoy’ and ‘uptight bitch’; she is ‘Vanity Fair’s 26th most frightening woman in the world of 2013’; and the best compliment her boss, who admires her to the point of being in love, can find is ‘cantankerous bitch’.
In this comic novel, Spectator columnist Melissa Kite raises the question: are argumentative women doomed to be unappreciated? Their prospects are certainly bleak if the highest praise they can expect is ‘cantankerous bitch’. Yet they needn’t worry too much: for those of us who aren’t pleasingly soft and pliant, demure and ‘feminine’, this novel suggests we could at least become very successful lawyers.