Ordinary People by Diana Evans

Melissa, Michael, Stephanie and Damian – the four friends in ‘Ordinary People’ have discovered that: “Adult life has fully revealed itself, wearing a limp, grey dressing gown.”

I would suspect there aren’t many married couples with children who can’t identify with many of the sentiments and behaviours found in Evan’s extraordinary novel.

Both couples live in London.  Michael and Melissa in 13 Paradise Row in Crystal Palace and Damian and Stephanie live in Dorking.

ordinary people by diana evansOrdinary People on Amazon

Evans focuses her attention primarily on M&M (as they are known to some of their friends) and specifically on Melissa. She is a freelance journalist, an independent spirit who is beautiful, cool, and feeling utterly suffocated by the chores of domesticity.  An earth mother she is not.  Michael after thirteen years together is still entranced by her, but even he is feeling worn down by life and by Melissa’s coldness towards him. Her unhappiness permeates their life.

Their house is another character in the book and is a metaphor for Melissa’s increasingly fragile state.  The more the house deteriorates, the more her mind follows suit.

Meanwhile Stephanie is a no-nonsense earth mother who adores her children and puts up with her husband.  I felt it was a pity that the author did not spend more time on this couple. They seemed to be making up the numbers a lot of the time, especially Stephanie.  She was the most sensible of the foursome, so perhaps less interesting to the writer, but I would have liked more of her. I admired her resilience and her capacity for getting on with life.

Evans prose is majestic.  She allows the miseries of the characters to unravel slowly, while London is described in Dickensian terms and adds to the stifling, sometimes hectic slightly crazy atmosphere.

Music plays a large part in the novel – indeed the title is taken from a John Legend song which include the lyrics: “This ain’t the honeymoon/ passed the infatuation stage.”

Both couples are also strongly rooted in their heritage.  Melissa feeds her children Eba and follows superstitions passed down from her African mother.

I adored everything about this novel.  The prose is gloriously atmospheric.  The story never felt depressing, just intense, and such a vivid, portrayal of ordinary lives that I was genuinely sorry when I finished it. The characters will live on in my memory for some time to come.  There is also a wonderful slightly bizarre gothic twist towards the end which I didn’t see coming, but which, although surprising, was not at all out of place.

Reader beware though – if you are going through a difficult time in a marriage or a relationship, the intensity may be too much.  On the other hand, it may provide some comfort to read of others’ struggles.   I leave that decision up to you!  For most people (I hope!!) I couldn’t recommend this highly enough.  A wonderful book.

 

 

 

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The Party by Elizabeth Day

Elizabeth Day moved to Northern Ireland when she was 4.  During her life she has lived in several different countries and attended boarding school as a child.  She said she always felt an outsider.

the party by elizabeth dayThe Party by Elizabeth Day

She wrote ‘The Party’ following an extremely difficult period in her life. She had fertility treatment, she suffered a miscarriage and the break-up of her marriage.  On the writing of this book she said, “it came from a place of untrammelled honesty. It came from a place of me.”

Her understanding of suffering and anger is evident and visceral.

This is Elizabeth’s Day’s 4th novel and in my opinion it’s a belter.  The sort of novel that has you aching to get back to it, sneaking an extra couple of pages while you should be doing something else.  Engrossing, with intense characterization – a delicious reading experience in every way.

The story is told in alternative 1st person narratives by Martin and Lucy who are married.  The plot jumps between the present day and Martin re-living his past. Martin and Lucy also fill us in on how they met and how they have come to be where they are now, neither is in a good place either literally or metaphorically speaking (no spoilers!)

Martin is an only child who suffered at the hands of his controlling unaffectionate mother.  His life changes when he is sent off to boarding school and meets the glamourous and worldly Ben Fitzmaurice.  This is where the novel becomes a little ‘The Talented Mr Ripley.’  Martin sees a different life for himself and goes to dramatic lengths to get what he wants.

Ben and Martins’ lives become entangled in a way in which escape for either is impossible.

The novel is structured by Martin’s interview at a police station following Ben’s extravagant 40th Birthday party.  We know something dreadful has happened – but what and to whom?  This is only one element of what kept me turning the pages.

How could Martin be so cold on the one hand and yet seemingly caring on the other?  Love turns to obsession and therein lies the inherent danger of human suffering.

This is also a novel about entitlement and the power and abuse that can occur with untold privilege.  Ben Fitzmaurice has had everything he ever wanted his entire life.  He is charming, intelligent and on the surface, apart from being a little superficial, he could be an all-round good guy.  Until we begin to perceive his complete lack of empathy and understanding for Martin’s experiences in life. Ben has a total lack of self-awareness and is entirely unwilling to take responsibility for his failings.   He is weak.

The heroine of the novel is Lucy.  She may initially appear downtrodden and desperate for Martin to like her, but her courage and anger propel her  forward, and as she comes to the realization that many women do later in life, that she is worth loving and doesn’t have to be ‘the perfect wife,’ we see her glorious true self emerge.   Elizabeth Day says of writing about Lucy:

“I loved writing Lucy, because it was a cathartic experience in many respects……And what I wanted to do with ‘The Party’ is show that a woman can be as empowered by her anger as a man. I think we’d live in a much healthier society if women just faced their anger, realised it was part of them and that it can be a really creative stimulus, in the same way happiness can be or love can be.”

Martin’s anger is destructive, where Lucy’s is cathartic.

This novel had me hooked from the first few pages.  The writing seems effortless (I have no doubt it was anything but!) the characterization is brilliant.  Elizabeth Day has recently written a non-fiction book entitled ‘How to Fail.’  I am breathless with anticipation to read that and her back catalogue of novels. Oh, the joy of finding a new writer that I love never gets old!  I hope you enjoyed the novel as much as I did, and if you haven’t read it yet, take it on your hols, you can thank me later!