Trouble With Exes

A few weeks ago when browsing in a bookstore, my eye was caught by a novel about a woman whose life is briefly thrown into a different gear when a long-lost lover from the past resurfaces. And I couldn’t help but pick it up because it made me think of something that had recently happened to me. Thanks to that infernal time sink, facebook, I’d come across a boy I’d been involved with back at school and, pretty sure he wouldn’t remember who I was, I’d sent a brief hello. It turned out he did remember me and we exchanged news enthusiastically for a while and then, just like that, he dropped out of sight again. So on one level it was an uncanny replay of the relationship we’d had as teenagers, and maybe in another twenty years I’ll find out what it was I said wrong this time. But my goodness, it took me back to being 18 again and to the worrying realization that I haven’t changed much. Except of course for the ways I’ve changed completely: the self I remember was so very unformed, a strange mix of fearlessness and uncertainty, and deep-down thrilled at the thought that I stood on the brink of my life, longing for it all to begin. Now my contours seem fixed – too fixed at times – and I am both more certain and more fearful. And when I read a while back that after 40 your life is a commentary on the living that preceded it, that phrase stuck in my mind and I haven’t quite been able to shake free of it, and the suspicion that maybe everything that was going to happen to me has happened already. So perhaps it’s no wonder that the memory of 18 is a terrible lure, as the past is a powerful place, for its open vistas of possibility if nothing else.

Anyhow, enough about me. William Nicholson’s The Secret Intensity of Everyday Life turned out to be a fantastic read and, surprisingly, one of those novels that are much better than their blurb. Yes, the story does concern in part Laura, and the return to her life of first love, Nick, but it is in fact a narrative that weaves together the fates and preoccupations of a large cast of characters, all of whom are connected to one another through geography or work or family ties or chance. There’s Henry, Laura’s husband, who is thoroughly miserable in his job writing scripts for a television star, a history academic, who swans in and takes all the glory. There are Carrie and Jack, their children, fighting the dirty battles of the playground, there’s their teacher, Alan, who longs to be a playwright, and his next-door neighbour, Marion, a fantasist busy convincing herself Alan is in love with her. There’s single mother, Liz, who is trying to juggle work and motherhood with the dubious help of her mother, Aster, who has never come to terms with her own losses. There’s a delightful cameo of the local vicar, a gentle, compassionate man who offers genuine help to his troubled parishioners but whose lack of formal Christian belief will get him into difficulty. And there are many others, whose stories add to the rich texture of the narrative and whose plotlines will interact with one another over the course of six days in which everything changes, and yet everything stays the same.

Nicholson’s basic premise is that if you lift the lid off any human being, you will find a secret inner life of formidable emotional intensity. His narrative moves from one perspective to another with ease and vivid clarity as he evokes the anguish, longing and vulnerability of each of his characters, hidden just below the surface and yet overwhelming in the lived moment. I was having a discussion on the phone the other day with the adorable Fugitive Pieces, who said she’d had a revelation about the books that pleased her. They all turned out to have been written by authors who actually liked their characters, and this novel was a perfect case in point. Nicholson treats his varied cast with unwavering compassion, gently steering them from the troubled place where the book begins, towards happier endings. This was a poignant, moving, uplifting sort of book, and at the same time, a very novel-ish sort of novel, if you know what I mean. It seemed at first glance an odd story for a man to write. When I describe it, I’m afraid it might sound like something Miss Read might pen, but don’t be fooled, for the book has its own intense inner life, and is particularly graphic over issues of sexuality. But I loved it, and it is another contender for the best books of 2010.

While I’m on the topic of exes (sort of) I might as well review another book I read while I wasn’t blogging, The Bed I Made by Lucie Whitehouse. This is a completely different kind of book and yet once again it is based on a recognizable sort of model. This is a Woman As Victim Who Tries To Fight Back Thriller. The story concerns Kate, a freelance translator with a difficult family history who does not always form relationships easily. However, one reckless evening, she met and fell into a startlingly intense liaison with satanically handsome and enigmatic Richard who eventually dropped the enigma and turned out to be just plain satanic. After eighteen thrilling but bruising months, Richard has gone too far, and Kate is determined to finish the relationship. Richard, alas, has other plans for her, and aware of how dangerous he is when thwarted, Kate attempts to drop below the radar by moving away from London and to the Isle of Wight for six months. After a nervous start, she begins to settle into her new life and to grow fond of it, to connect with a natural environment that awakens parts of her self she had lost in the artificial bustle of London life. She also becomes slightly obsessed with the story of a local woman who went missing from her boat when Kate first arrived and is presumed dead. But of course, Kate cannot be allowed to heal and grow in peace, because the peril she feared is approaching ever nearer as Richard starts to track her down.

A couple of things I wasn’t sure about in this book; the first was when I began it, I couldn’t help but wonder whether it was the sort of story in which a difficult relationship, a dangerous one, in fact, can only be neutralised by another, good relationship. What have I got against this equation, I wonder? It’s just that it seems undermining to me, when the story is fundamentally about a woman refusing victimhood, that she cannot do this on her own, that she has to be part of a pair to reclaim her sense of self. I sense powerful storytelling tropes pulling the strings here, because a woman healing the past is rarely allowed to do so through her work alone, for instance, or her community or her friendships. It just doesn’t make for a ‘good’ story. I won’t tell you how this conundrum is resolved; you’ll have to read the book to find out. My other uncertainty is a missed opportunity concerning location. There is a lot of description in this book of the Isle of Wight, and I mean, enough to give me the urge to skip some of it. And I realized that I wasn’t engaged with it because the author didn’t do enough with the landscape. Really good thrillers make use of every element of the narration to create atmosphere. Here, the Isle of Wight was very accurately and sometimes beautifully evoked, but it was a backdrop on which the action was pasted. The novels that have impressed me lately, like Lee Child and his use of urban space for Reacher, show how the world colludes in the chase that is the heart of the thriller – does the world expose or hide the protagonists, what resources does it provide, does it contrast natural beauty with human evil or emphasise the dark side of humanity?

But where this book really works is in the psychological and emotional portrait it creates of abusive relationships. The back story of Richard and Kate’s relationship unspools across the narrative and was the best part (for me, at least). It was completely convincing and drawn with a lot of insight and accuracy. Although I had a few reservations about the book it was a generally good read and worth it for the psychological astuteness. Expect a sort of quality beach read. I’d say more but reviewing two books is too much really, and always makes for a huge post. Except to say that the return of the past, the contrast between our insides and our outsides, the exquisite vulnerability of love relationships, these are all formidable topics for narrative, and make for the kind of stories I really enjoy reading.


18 thoughts on “Trouble With Exes

  1. I’m reading the Whitehouse book right now and it does have a beachy sort of feel to it, but it’s still very entertaining. It is an interesting setup since she goes off on her own–I’m curious how things will unfold (I’m only about a third of the way in). I’ll have to pay more attention to setting now that you mention it. I love the island descriptions, but now will have to see in what way they help move (or not) the story along. And I can see I’m going to have to put in yet another ILL request for the Nicholson book (and just when I told myself not more for a while).

  2. I have been contemplating reading ‘The bed I made’ and was interested in reading your review, even if it had a mixed reaction. In fact, I’d be more inclined to read ‘The Secret Intensity of Everyday Life now, so thanks for your views on both books.

  3. Wow, some great reviews, and oh, my Facebook! Facebook certainly has made the world a much smaller place than even the internet alone has done, huh? I’m sure you didn’t say anything wrong — more than likely, the ex from before is just still the same old wishy-washy guy! 🙂

  4. Oh, the perils of Facebook!! It disturbs me, LL, that you assume responsibility for his silence – ‘maybe in another twenty years I’ll find out what it was I said wrong this time’ – when it’s likely he hasn’t changed very much in the intervening years either, and probably retains his prior inadequacies around mature communication. I can’t help but think good riddance, in that case. And I am AGHAST at this theory about life after 40 – I reject that passionately and absolutely, and am appalled by the entire spirit of it. What a hideous idea to peddle – whoever wrote that should have their crayons confiscated.

    Your reading pace is so daunting, but I *really* like the sound of The Secret Intensity of Everyday Life. It’s a good basic premise, for being true.

  5. Danielle – I enjoyed the Whitehouse a lot at the time of reading it – I think it suffered a bit today in comparison with the Nicholson which was just the perfect book for me at the time (I think so much depends on the moment when we read something). But The Bed I Made did exactly what it said on the tin – it was a reliable, entertaining thriller. I’d love to know what you think of the Nicholson, too.

    Bluestocking – you crack me up, really you do. 🙂

    Karen – both are very good books. My personal preference was for the Nicholson, but The Bed I Made was very enjoyable too. I’d love to know what you think of either of them.

    Coffee and a book chick – thank you! He probably had something important come up that I know nothing about. That’s the problem with dead air – far too tempting to speculate! 🙂

    Di – ah remember that I didn’t blog for a couple of months, and so have all the books from that period to catch up on, as well as the ones I’m reading right now (although I fear I’ve forgotten lots of what I read because I didn’t blog about them at the time). It’s quite true you are about to blast that theory about age out of the water – so yay! I’ll cheer you on for that. And as for my ex, well, my husband often reminds me that men don’t return the social ping pong ball the way women do and he probably just had other stuff to do. I have a terrible tendency to say sorry when someone stands on my foot! 🙂

    • I hardly intend to blaze a trail on this front, LL (though thanks for the vote of confidence; there’s just over two years to go before I can personally start debunking this crackpot theory!) – I’ve simply known too many curious, imaginative and adventurous post-40s folk to give the idea any credence at all.

      (I also constantly apologise for things that aren’t my fault – this is a bad habit we should both try to break!)

  6. I don’t have anything to add on the ex or the two interesting books you reviewed. Except that I really liked Mr Litlove’s comment. I can also definitely identify with your social anxiety and how tiring it can be. I often want to show people how to return the ping-pong ball but then I just have to sigh and let it go.

  7. A namecheck on Litlove! My life is complete. Seriously, I haven’t felt this validated since I finally knocked over my A-levels…
    It is a useful rule of thumb, choosing authors who seem to warm to their characters – I certainly don’t mind some clear-eyed, compassionate satirism either, and I’d stretch as far as cool observational analysis. My book-hurling point is cold, bitter evisceration. An author can ponder the intricacies of the human heart, or savage them, and William Nicholson sounds like he’s very much a ponderer.
    I really enjoyed Lucie Whitehouse’s first book ‘The House At Midnight’, which took a deliciously gothic turn, and liked this one too. Like you, though, I found the sky was painted; Richard made an excellent dark star, but the denouement was frustratingly clunky. I wonder – the main character’s work is hardly mentioned, and yet she’s a English/French translator; it seemed to me that this metaphor could have been enormously expanded, and that perhaps you found it insulting that this skill was so casually disregarded?!
    As for the erstwhile FB friend? I think he’s taken his bat and ball, gone home, and is now wondering why life seems empty. Again. Pshaw, I say. Let’s stick with Michelangelo (“I am still learning”) and we’ll be joyous, cackling nonagenarians, with hope in our hearts and persistent, voracious curiosity, about everything!

  8. I feel rather unsafe in the world in general, and consequently I hardly ever read books about abusive relationships. A bit ostrichy, I know (they don’t really do that, with their heads, in real life). But the other one sounds really interesting!

  9. You know, when you were having a blogging break I didn’t add very many books to my TBR list, now that you are back I seem to be adding books every few days. I’m not complaining or anything, just sayin’. The Nicholson books sounds especially good.

  10. The Nicholson book sounds really good! I completely believe your point and Nicholson’s that “if you lift the lid off any human being, you will find a secret inner life of formidable emotional intensity.” Definitely good material for a novel!

  11. I’ve had The Bed I Made on my beside table for a couple of months now, after picking up a proof copy from work – I was attracted by the cover with that mermaid tangle of hair and luminous sea-green background. I got through about 30 pages on the bus on the way home but never went back to it – despite the fact that each time I actually make the bed it seems to look at me accusingly. After reading your review I think I will give it another go. Had I realised a ‘satanically handsome’ yet dangerous ex was involved I’m sure I’d have come back to it much more quickly.

  12. Well, your recommendation is enough for me to add the first to my list. This thing about after 40, your life is a commentary on what preceded it, well couldn’t you say that at any age? At least for those of us who think narratively, life is is always a commentary, because we’re making a story out of it, and we only know the book to date. And I can say from personal experience that my life has been far more eventful from 40 on then it was from 30 to 40. It was just as eventful, maybe more so, prior to 30, but they were the kind of events that suck big time. Let’s take someone else for example, Annie Proulx. She didn’t start publishing until her late 50’s. And her first novel was very different in setting from her Wyoming stories. I would have thought she grew up in the west, but no, she was born, educated, and married in New England and only moved out there in her late 50’s, too. The curtain doesn’t fall till the fat lady sings. 😉

  13. I had a little burst of compassioon for your line about wondering “what it was I said wrong this time”. I bet it was nothing. Just separate lives, like saying hello in passing. but i know what you mean–it’s just natural to wonder.

    I also really liked your reminiscence about your younger self. I read a brilliant article recently on why teens, especially young males, get in trouble. There is a hormonal component to that urge to test boundaries. (Their own brains whispering, “Go for it, what have you got to lose? You’re not afraid, are you? Can’t win if you don’t try!”). As we age the hormones shift and we aren’t prompted to prove ourselves in the same way.

    Good reviews, too, Litlove.

  14. Pete – It’s a tendency of mine to worry about that ping-pong ball, with the result that nowadays I often choose to be the one who stops replying to a conversation, which is just plain weird really, as a solution. And I often have to remember that I can do nothing about other people!

    Fugitive – oh let the joyous cackling begin! I love that. And if I’d known you were going to like it I would have namechecked you much earlier – so many reasons to do so! But I did particularly appreciate your insight over the sympathatic attitude to characters and it pops up in my mind regularly these days as an acid test on an author. I couldn’t agree more on the lost opportunity that is the translation thing. It ends up like the landscape as just another prop, which is a shame because I felt that Whitehouse is a talented author and was capable of doing much more with it. And of course that’s easy for me to say, sitting in my comfortable chair reading rather than toiling on the cliff face of a manuscript…. 😉

    Jenny – I quite understand. I never see horror films or read horror books for the same reason. But the Nicholson is lovely and perfectly safe territory.

    Stefanie – lol! I know how that goes – between you and Danielle, I seem to be creating a nice tbr pile of notable hugeness. I didn’t buy many books at all while I wasn’t blogging, but that’s all gone west since coming back. But I’m not complaining either – my tbr pile is one of my greatest joys in life.

    Dorothy – I really enjoyed it, not least because I had no expectations for it whatsoever and it turned out so much better than I had ever imagined. I like it when that happens!

    Baker’s daughter – I agree it’s a delightful cover, very hypnotic. I’d love to know what you make of it if you do go back. No book suits everyone and I can see why some people wouldn’t get on with it, but on the other hand, it was a solidly good read that did exactly what it said it would on the tin, as it were.

    Lilian – what a fantastic way to look at it. And I had no idea that Annie Proulx was middleaged when she began writing. You know, I think I keep reading the wrong biographies, of all these tragic people who flame up early and then wither away. And you’re quite right that the 30s aren’t always a great age – I was at my most overworked and my most tired throughout them, even if a lot of interesting stuff happened. Here’s to keeping the fat lady off stage for as long as possible!

    Ben – aw what a kind comment from you, thank you. And I did like what you had to say there about adolescence. Hormones have a lot to answer for, don’t they? But in good ways, too, as well as bad.

  15. OK, you inspired me – I did it – I went back and read it – and I actually really enjoyed it. It was one of the better thrillers I’ve read lately, and I liked the fact that it wasn’t prurient or salacious, as so many books about battered women tend to be. I think the fact that the author was actually quite reticent – even coy – about what happened with Kate’s ex generated as much suspense as what he could potentially do to her in the future. And I actually really liked the use of landscape for atmosphere – I think she did storms particularly well (there’s a bit I’d quote here about wind wuthering down the chimney etc if I hadn’t left my copy at a homeless shelter after I’d finished it!) I did have a few reservations – in particular, I thought the parallelling with the vanished local woman was a bit misleading. I understand that maybe she’s meant to be the female equivalent of Richard, whereas we’re initially led to see her as a victim like Kate, but I found this a little unsatisfying and pat: initially, I thought the author was going to draw out a deeper, more subtle resonance between them. I also didn’t like the overt discussion of Richard as a pyschopath – the clinical language just seemed unnecessary and gave the book a hysterical/sensationalist timbre it hadn’t previously had. But overall I really enjoyed it – so thanks again for persuading me to give it another go.

  16. Baker’s daughter – I am SO glad that you got something out of this book! Hurray! But reading your comment, I had to agree completely with your reservations. I also thought the sub plot featuring the other missing woman was a little confused in its intent, and that the psychopath information wasn’t entirely necessary. But there was a lot of good things about the book that made it worth a read. I’m really delighted it turned out okay for you. Oh and I like your donation of the book to the shelter afterwards – what a good idea.

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