Book Review: Ordinary People

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

I first came across Ordinary People at a book festival event where the author was one of the speakers on a panel. Here I learned that the story is centred in South London, near Crystal Palace, and is about two couples with children as they experience relationship crises. This didn’t sound like a book for me. Then it was longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction alongside several other novels I have recently read and enjoyed. I decided to set aside my preconceptions and give it a go.

It is a book in two halves. I quickly became absorbed in the lives of the lead couple, Melissa and Michael. The role of the second couple, Damian and Stephanie, is significant to the plot but plays a more supporting role. The writing brought to mind a contemporary Jane Austin and I was duly impressed. It is an engrossing story offering understated insights into the ordinary issues and frustrations of family life. These are presented unvarnished but with a degree of sympathy. There is an added dash of humour to soften any darkness explored.

We are introduced to M&M (as a friend refers to them) at a party to celebrate Obama’s election. This is hosted by two brothers who used to live in North London but moved south as they

“were conscious of their privilege and wanted to be seen as having survived it spiritually”

Their guest list featured

“all the important, successful and beautiful people they knew […] less eminent guests were chosen on a sliding scale according to rank, connections, looks and personality”

Melissa and Michael are also moving – from their small flat to a house south of the river. They want a garden for their children to play in. Financial constraints lead to compromises so their new abode is far from ideal. The area suffers regular knife crime. The house is old and Melissa soon begins to sense malevolence.

Before this becomes a key issue there are growing problems in the M&M relationship. Melissa feels that her essence is being suffocated by the demands of motherhood and takes out her frustrations on Michael. He in turn is saddened that his beautiful and vital young partner has turned into this disdainful and inattentive shrew who is no longer interested in him sexually, an important aspect of their affinity in his view.

Melissa misses the professional working environment – although we later learn she is harbouring rose tinted memories – and rails against the mundane requirements of the daily care of small children. She feels guilt at her boredom and at how easily she falls into the competitive conversations typical amongst groups of mothers at the places she goes to escape the confines of her home. When Michael returns from work each evening he is berated for not doing more to ease Melissa’s burden. Pointing out that he has to work to support them fuels her anger.

All this is portrayed in: bus journeys, visits to a park and soft play emporiums, meetings between friends. These friends include Damian and Stephanie who we are introduced to at their home in Dorking. Unlike Melissa, Stephanie adores motherhood and would be content were it not for her husband’s perceived obdurateness. Damian resents that they moved out of London – he misses the buzz of the city. His father died recently and this has affected him more than he realises. Added to this he harbours hidden feelings for Melissa.

There is an amusing scene when Stephanie’s parents attend one of their “monthly in-lawed roasts”. Stephanie’s father offers passive aggressive advice, making clear that Damian is not good enough for his princess. Although Stephanie defends him, Damian silently agrees.

“had he really fallen in love at all? Was it just that she had made him feel adequate and dynamic, that she was focused and forthright in her plans for her life when he was not”

At around halfway through the book I realised that the perceptive, amusing and dynamic pace had slowed and my interest was waning. When the pace picked up again the tone felt more soap opera than penetrative. There are arguments and foolish reactions. The couples splinter and reconcile. It is smoothly written but lacking the verve of the earlier portrayal.

A group holiday adds interest before the focus returns to London and Melissa’s growing fears centred on her house – the effect she is convinced it is having on her daughter. Michael is struggling to reconcile the woman Melissa has become with the woman he fell in love with.

The denouement is neatly achieved but I finished the book feeling underwhelmed. The initial potential – that elegant capturing of the nuances of modern coupledom, of parenting in the 21st century – was not sustained.

Throughout the story there are references to music that I could not appreciate as I knew few of the artists and do not listen to those whose names I recognised. I am guessing that this will appeal more to readers whose age better fits the protagonists (late thirties). The author has created a playlist for those interested.

Near the end of the narrative Michael Jackson dies. This bookending with celebration and then grief over well known people of colour fits with one of the themes explored – the differences in lived experience of the dark and light skinned British from the professional classes.

Any Cop?: I’m not going to condemn what is a well constructed and generally satisfactory read. The first half exceeded my expectations and made me glad to have picked up the book. The second half denied it the status of modern classic.

 

Jackie Law

Gig Review: The Greenwich Book Festival – Festival Party

The 2018 Festival Party, held in the impressively vaulted Queen Mary Undercroft, had a theme of Celebrating Women Writers. The featured authors were predominantly London based with four of the five published by Penguin. From the readings and discussion of their work these appeared to be mainly commercial fiction – historic or domestic noir. Of the books being promoted I had only read Lissa Evans’ Old Baggage which I thoroughly enjoyed.

The venue opened half an hour before the first panel convened allowing attendees to purchase drinks, mingle and find seats at the round tables. The chair of the event and co-founder of the festival, Patricia Nicol, then called for the audience’s attention.

The first panel brought together Imogen Hermes Gower, Lissa Evans and Paula McLain.

Imogen introduced her latest release, The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock. The book is set in late eighteenth century London. At the time it was a maritime city. There were few bridges across the river, allowing access to the tall ships arriving laden with cargo. Ships were built that enabled the creation of the empire. Grand houses were established in the west of the city around Hyde Park for the moneyed classes who enjoyed leisurely pastimes. The men would vie for the renowned courtesans, the celebrities of the day. There was a cachet in ‘owning’ such women. London at this time was booming. It was an exciting period.

The book’s protagonist, Mr Hancock, is a merchant living in Deptford. He is lonely and grieving having lost his wife and daughter. When one of his captains delivers a mermaid statue that he has sold his ship to obtain Hancock is displeased but determines to do what he can to capitalise on the purchase. Imogen told us that such a mermaid exists in the British Museum where she worked.

The other main character in the book is Angelica Neal, a desirable and accomplished courtesan living in Soho, who Hancock meets at a party. Women who wanted more than childcare and needlework had to find ways to protect themselves. They sought freedom but had to work within the patriarchal structures.

Lissa‘s protagonist, Mattie Simpkin, is a former militant suffragette, now in late middle age and looking for a cause to fight for. Set in 1928 London, this was a significant year as the enfranchisement of the people was enacted and Emmeline Pankhurst died. Lissa talked of the suffragettes, how they fought together to shoulder down the door but then, once through, scattered to settle into domesticity or fight new causes. In this aftermath many stayed good friends, leaving their estates to one another on death. They led extraordinary lives. Before the First World War they had caused and endured violence. When the war started Pankhurst decided their fight should be paused which split the movement.

Old Baggage is a comedy but has depth and layers. Its apparent lightness was not easy to write. Mattie first appeared in an earlier work, Crooked Heart. Lissa had not intended to devote a book to her but she chained herself to Lissa’s conscience demanding to be written about.

Paula‘s protagonist existed. Martha Gellhorn would become one of the greatest war correspondents of the twentieth century. For a few years, around the Second World War, she would also enter into a relationship with Earnest Hemingway, and this is what she is remembered for. Paula did not wish this remarkable woman to be merely a footnote in someone else’s history.

Hemingway married four times. Gellhorn was the only one to leave him. She was his intellectual equal. She flung herself at life, was ambitious and independent. Hemingway was at the height of his powers when they met and was attracted by her audacity which, once married, he would try to suppress. He expected her to put him first, going as far as to steal her journalist’s ID and offer himself in her place.

Unable to gain passage as a war correspondent, Gellhorn made her own way to Spain to report on the Civil War. Rather than list the dead, as reports at the time did, she wrote about the living victims, the survivors in a bombed and broken land. She stowed away on a ship and ended up in the thick of the action while other journalists remained on the periphery. Her social conscience was her drive and she wanted to wake this in others.

Living with Hemingway she watched as his books became best sellers while hers disappeared. As an introduction to her work, Paula suggested we read Travels With Myself and Another.

Following a short break during which we could revisit the bar and mingle with other attendees, a second panel convened bringing together Diana Evans and Louise Candlish. Whereas the previous three writers were talking of historic fiction, these two have written domestic stories set in more recent times. Their London is south of the river.

Diana‘s Ordinary People is set against the backdrop of Barack Obama’s 2008 election victory. It is a portrait of black British life. It opens with two couples attending a party to celebrate Obama’s inauguration. The crisis explored is the arrival of children in these busy, professional Londoner’s lives. Diana takes the reader inside the minds of the men and the women. She wished to represent the experiences of parenthood and marriage from both points of view as well as black lives, ordinary lives.

London is rich in history yet is also difficult to live in. Diana writes of the resentments of couples. The women are trying to work from home, constantly interrupted by children and the demands of keeping the house in order. The men are resentful of having to commute to jobs they do not enjoy.

Music plays an important role as does the psychology of the characters. They are trying to find their place in an increasingly gentrified city.

Louise‘s Our House explores the folly of aspiration. A husband sells the family home without the wife knowing. It is a page-turner, a twisty thriller. It was conceived as a cautionary tale.

From the moment they moved in, the wife in the book had been constantly improving her house, intending to create a forever home yet never reaching an point where this was achieved. The couple are property obsessives, forever checking how much the house is worth and how they could climb the property ladder. The sale can occur due to the couple’s birds nest custody arrangement. This happens when parents separate but hold on to the family home where the children continue to live. A second, small property is purchased and the parents take it in turn to live in each house.

Our House is a he said / she said novel. This format is integral to the plot. Neither lead character is lying but neither are they listening to the other’s story. Louise told us it was fiendish to plot. She used timelines for each character, including a car and phones. It is set in South London Zone 3, an affluent area with good schools and overland train rather than underground. It is Louise’s twelfth novel and more complicated and ambitious than previous works. It is about bitter love.

All five authors then took to the stage for an audience Q&A.

Imogen was asked who her influences were. She mentioned Beryl Bainbridge and Danielle Dutton but explained that to achieve an authentic voice for the period she collected words and phrases.

The authors were asked if they felt writing about women over the age of forty was dangerous. They agreed that they felt free to write about who they wanted so long as what they had to say captivates. Writers write the books they want to write, books they would want to read. It was pointed out that the majority of readers are middle aged women.

Paula was asked about her book The Paris Wife. She explained that whatever she writes she wants to feel emotion, to put herself in the setting and feel invested in the novel.

The authors were asked how they managed to make a living when they first started writing (I’m sure this is a question no writer should be asked!). None of the panel started as full time writers as they needed jobs to pay the rent. They squeezed in writing time somehow. Demands on resources depend on individual circumstances. Those without dependents can live on less. Creative Writing courses were recommended for those needing to learn discipline and structure. Mostly though, a writer has to want to write.

The authors were asked how they knew when to stop, to let go and submit a manuscript. The answer was, when they felt they could do no more to make it better. It must be the absolute best, the most polished it can be at the time. Unless under a deadline it was suggested that work then be set aside for a month before returning with fresh eyes. A community of writers can be useful in providing feedback. However, don’t reword and rework so much that buoyancy is lost.

Imogen was asked if any of her characters were based on historical figures. She borrowed her courtesan from several who existed, especially one whose friend / servant wrote about her. One particular bawdy scene was based on a real party held when Captain Cook brought some artifacts to London – a scientific orgy!

And on that note the event was drawn to a close. Books were available to buy with authors willing to sign on request. I was happy to be able to introduce myself to the lovely Alison Barrow, Director of Media Relations at Transworld, who has sent me some amazing books over the years.

On our way back to our overnights digs, my daughter and I discussed the lack of diversity in the literature featured at an event celebrating women writers – where was the fantasy, the experimental, the poetry? Thankfully this was addressed at subsequent events at the festival, which I will write about over the coming week.