A chance meeting in Kew takes Rachel back to her teenage years when she went to parties hosted by the ultra-cool Vanessa; even then Rachel felt the outsider, observing the rich and smooth and lucky having fun, and when Vanessa died she was not invited to the funeral and took that as exclusion. Rachel always feels that she was the outsider: “I was just the one on the edge of things; the hanger-on.” (p 15); this is reinforced when she meets the the posh mothers of the boys at her son's new posh school: “People like me, and my family, should always stay in their place on the sidelines, on the outside, forever looking In, and longing. I hate myself for even trying. I hate myself that I should care.” (p 33) And, of course, trying so hard NOT to be the outsider (“I was the audience on the other side of the rope, reaching over.” p 118) she has scrimped to put her boy into the posh school, to join a world where he knows he doesn't really belong, so that he too is an outsider. This portrait of an adolescent boy from the outside is beautiful and cruel and heart-breaking: “I see his face flushed and petulant. He is tired. He wants to go home. Jonathan lives in a world where there is just himself to think about; just to his own wants and needs ... that I could be anything more than just his mother ... is unthinkable to Jonathan. That there could ever have been anything more to my life would never enter his head. It's just not possible.” (p 18)
Now Rachel obsessively (in a rare moment of humour: “Andrew says I am obsessive. He says it all the time.” p 33) tries to reach back into the past, almost stalking the remaining members of Vanessa's family. She meets Vanessa's brother. Angry at her sterile life (“I am just a middle aged woman out of nowhere. I am what you become when you disappear.” p 53; “I am what I am: wife, mother, the springboard from which other people leap, the carpet on which they stand.” p 99) she embarks on an affair. An affair which of course she can justify, because of her anger and her misery: “I may have betrayed Andrew, but hasn’t he betrayed me too, in shutting me out, in driving me to this?” (p 166)
This is an almost perfect book. It is oh-so-ordinary life with all its pressures and agonies; it needs no more than that. It is built into a perfectly paced four-act structure. It builds into a nail-biting climax. Towards the end I was torn between not wanting to read any more because it was so terrible and not being able to stop reading.
And the last line is perfect too.
There were so many brilliant observations. Here are a few:
- “Andrew always accepts what I say without question, and I don't know if that is because he trusts me, or because he doesn't really care.” (p 19)
- “I picture myself inside an envelope; I tuck myself in, the sides, the bottom, the top. I fold myself away.” (p 20)
- “I am ashamed of myself for being ashamed.” (p 83)
- “every social interaction a weighing-up and a judgement, a laying-out of assets to be displayed.” (p 123)
- “When I met Andrew I knew that he was kind, honest, decent. I thought that I would be safe with him, but I know now that there is no such thing as safe; there is only fear and denial.” (p 128)
- “I think of the ones who survived and the ones who didn't, as though their teenage years were a sort of weeding-out process.” (p 145)
- “I am a hot from running, hot from Simon. I am wet from Simon. I sit there, looking like a housewife and feeling like a whore, with the wet of him still taking its time to seep out of me, and soak into my clothes.” (p 163)
- “And who am I, covering up what I have done with a bit of lipstick, when I have another man's scent - another man's bodily fluids, for heaven’s sake - still warm upon my skin?” (p 165)
- “I do not need to hear how lucky I am. I have heard it too often and it simply doesn't wash anymore. They are words to keep me down, that is all.” (p 222)
- “I start to cry; stupidly, useless and horribly noisily, in the confines of my small and functional bathroom. Andrew has left his bathrobe pegged on the hook beside the door. It hangs there like a slumped, dark shadow of a man; redundant and abandoned.” (p 277)
There are, of course, parallels between this story and that of Madame Bovary ...
February 2018; 343
February 2018; 343