The Faithful Couple

faithful coupleOne of the bits I really like in the film of Bridget Jones’ Diary is the fight scene between Colin Firth and Hugh Grant. What makes me laugh every time is how real they manage to make it look – all clumsy grappling and uncoordinated lashing out, the impetus to hurt the other person kept in check by the much stronger desire not to be hurt oneself. They are two boys having a scrap in the playground, not Hollywood actors in a polished and well-choreographed routine and it’s very endearing.

It was the same sense of scrappy realness, a bit clumsy, a bit awkward, often mortified, that kept me engaged and enjoying The Faithful Couple, A. D. Miller’s bromance about long-term friendship between men. Adam Tayler and Neil Collins meet in California while travelling, Adam as part of a gap-year after his degree at Durham, Neil as a treat after he jacks in a pharmaceutical sales job. There’s a distinct, nuanced difference in class. Neil, though he also has a degree, will be trapped on his return into working at his widowed father’s dreary stationary shop in a dull, grubby part of London. His mother died when he was 14, and his older brother has gone off the rails. Adam comes from an entitled family, a jolly, confident bunch, his father in shipping insurance, his mother helping charities. Adam has the money behind him to be idealistic, and is intending to work in television.

But first: California. The young men fall into an easy, feckless friendship, their comfort with one another spiked at the edges by an undercurrent of rivalry. Travelling up the West coast of America, they urge each other on to bad behaviour, running out of a bar without paying. It’s nothing really, they are good boys at heart. But on a camping trip in Yosemite, the competitiveness gets a little out of hand over a young woman named Rose. Adam is aware of her age, and does not pass this information on to Neil. There is an ugly incident, but one that eventually passes over without any dire consequence. Back in England, Adam and Neil cement their friendship, the secret sin that lurks between them exerts a uniting effect, not least in their desire to cover it over.

But as the years slip by and things do not fall out as expected – Adam’s career repeatedly stagnates, his ambition lost to the daily grind of family life, whilst Neil moves from dotcom to property to financial management, making money all the way – the California incident begins to fester. It’s Adam who lets himself become needled with guilt. Partly the birth of his daughter affects him with superstitious karmic fear, but there’s also an unarticulated disappointment to deal with, that on paper, Neil is doing better than he is. In the unwritten laws of his upbringing, Adam realises that this inability to let an old, half-forgotten incident go is as verboten as any other form of weakness:

To moon over a girl was gay. To worry over exams was nerdy. Everyone was supposed permanently to be on good form, as if they were well-conditioned, moodless racehorses… They were all or nothing people, Adam realised, his family, his breed. Their only game plan was to get all the way through, right to the end, thinking as little as possible, in the hope that they could outrun it – whatever it was that they were frantically eschewing, the neglect or abuse or adultery.’

Adam can’t quite leave it alone; he has to use the incident in California as a stick to beat himself with, except of course he keeps missing and hitting Neil instead. The underlying preoccupation of the story is whether the men will allow it to destroy their friendship – something we come to understand is meaningful and important to them – or if they’ll find a way to neutralise their growing resentment.

This is a thoughtful, touching novel that feels unusual in its male-driven perspective. The question of whether men can still love one another as friends in a typical new millenium middle-class life that is far too bothered about money and success and advancement is not one that often gets asked – or at least, not one that gets asked to the exclusion of all else. The prose is supple and clever, though occasionally Miller does ask it to do too much, to fit in too many thoughts – there are sentences that require the reader to put on her wader’s wellies to get across. And I fear women might not care much for the way women are seen through the eyes of the main protagonists. There’s nothing sexist here. It’s just that women aren’t seen very much; the male gaze still tracks other, more self-regarding prizes than the happiness of those who love them. But I fear that may just be realistic. Other than that, Miller is particularly good on class, and on the changing face of life in London, and on bringing up children, and on the relentless, indefatigable competition between men and just about everyone and everything else. It’s that detailed attention to authenticity that makes this novel a pleasure to read.

33 thoughts on “The Faithful Couple

  1. I’ve been eagerly anticipating this but my copy appears to have gone AWOL. It’s the structure that I find so appealing and it does sound as if it will live up to expectations for me but thanks for the forewarning about the portrayal – or non-portrayal – of women. Sad that it seems realistic.

    • How frustrating! I do hope it turns up as I’d love to know what you think of this one. Yes, the structure works I think – would be most intriguing to have your view on the gender issue!

  2. Ha, and ha again to your comment about the secondary place women and their happiness play in (these? nearly all?) men’s lives. In my limited experience, that has certainly been the case. I’ve been meaning to read this book, but somehow never quite got round to it, so thanks for the review and the reminder.

    • I’d love to know what you think of it. My experience has generally been with that kind of man, too. Even the nice ones. It was most interesting to see it (or rather see that absence) in print.

  3. Sounds like an interesting book. You don’t see too many that are actually about male friendship. I hope this means there might be more of this kind of book to look forward to.

    • You’re quite right – since the buddy movie, and I suppose the army movie, took over the male friendship arena, there haven’t been many nuanced portrayals. But this was very interesting and I’d happily read more.

  4. Is the incident on the camping trip a rape? I’ve been thinking about reading this but probably won’t if its that.

    • Ooh now I’ve been meaning to email you about this. It isn’t a rape, exactly, but I think I need to tell you the details so you can judge for yourself where it falls on your scale. There are often things I like to know about too before embarking on a book.

  5. The way you described this reminded me quite a lot of the best parts of Jonathan Franzen’s “Freedom,” which at its heart was a fabulous bromance, and at its edges was the most overwrought sexist crap in the world. But where it worked, it was so thought-provoking and compelling that I could almost forgive him his didactic lunacy (which includes hating cats because they kill too many songbirds, as if this were somehow the cats’ fault) and the fact that apparently he has never met or spoken to an actual woman.

    • How your comments always make me laugh. Yes, I can see where you’re coming from with the Freedom comparison. It is a sort of British version; more emotionally constipated, smaller focus, but no grandiosity to speak of. I did enjoy Freedom, I seem to recall, but it’s heading dangerously near the mental layer that becomes sludge. One of these days I’ll read it again.

    • Anne, I did so enjoy your review too! I have a soft spot for books that tackle class issues, partly because they are more nuanced now than they used to be, but by no means less influential in their way.

  6. Great review, Victoria. I’m trying to concentrate on my TBR right now, but your comments make me think that this novel would appeal to a (male) friend of mine. It’s a combination of the dynamics of male friendship and the demands of bringing up children that might be of interest. He lives in London, so Miller’s points on life in the city would also strike a chord. I’ve made a note of it – thanks for the review!

    • Ooh yes, it does sound good for your friend, Jacqui. Certainly ticks those particular boxes. Do let me know what he thinks of it, if he does pick up a copy!

  7. I’ve been prevaricating over this. I wasn’t as impressed by ‘Snowdrop’ as many readers were and so this hasn’t been a must read for me. Perhaps when the paperback is available.

    • Sometimes it’s a relief, isn’t it, to come across one that might be happy left on the wayside! I didn’t read Snowdrops – and would I now? Well, perhaps. It’s interesting; I did really enjoy this, but he’s not necessarily a writer whose back catalogue I feel I must have. But I’d certainly consider him again.

  8. I love that scene in Bridget Jones’ diary, for precisely the reasons you list. I’d spotted The Faithful Couple and wasn’t sure about it, but I think your review has swayed me. Thank you!

    • Yes, down-to-earth is a good way to describe it. It’s certainly a book about having the pretentions knocked out of you, which is probably pretty much what the British system does! I’d love to know what you think of it, should you pick up a copy.

  9. Well, okay then. I do get frustrated with books that treat women as afterthoughts, but I always want to read more books that treat friendships as serious, important relationships. And absolutely anything that deals with class in a nuanced way tends to please me.

    • Completely agree with you about class, and I would be most intrigued to know what you thought of this one. It is certainly a very serious and thoughtful account of male friendship’s composition.

  10. Great review. I can’t remember when last I read a book about male friendships so I’ll definitely add this to the TBR list. Oh, and Happy Birthday for today! I do hope you’ve given Mr LL some clues about what books to buy you for your birthday.

    • Thank you, dear Pete! That is so nice of you. Mr Litlove actually went off piste this year – because he ended up shopping for me with only 24 hours to go and went to the bookshop as an unconscious compulsion with no wish list on his person – and he did very well considering! Would love to know what you think of this book – do tell me if you manage to pick it up!

  11. Fascinating to read your review and the ensuing discussion (I have not read the book). I am interested that there appears to be so much consensus about what might constitute “male friendships”. How often are you (collectively) concerned about novels that treat men as “afterthoughts”, and if so does that matter. Novels are not reality; in which of course women very often do come off second best even in relatively civilized environments let alone huge parts of the world where they are truly downtrodden.

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