This starts in the 50s when Michael falls in love with Lucy at university. Michael marries her “without being fully aware of how it had all come about” and is stunned when he discovers how wealthy she is. He is determined to support them as a writer and would rather make ends meet writing for Chain Store Age than be tainted by touching her trust fund. Money is the big issue they can never discuss – that and the fact that neither of them have ever felt they fitted in (as when “fear of seeming to be a snob impelled her... to become one”). As they glimpse more bohemian lives of their friends, they become increasingly unsettled and more aware of that.
The recurring theme is the desire “to make difficult things look easy”, along with the converse of having but wasting talent and/or wealth. The irony is that money is an issue in all the relationships portrayed (including friendship), and it taints them all, even in those where it isn’t apparently an issue. It is also about the process and toll of writing, although Michael is a writer whose main word-related quality is saying the wrong thing in the wrong way when it matters most.
The story proceeds in three parts, spread over subsequent decades, with the second focusing on Lucy and the third on Michael (it might be intriguing to read 3 and 2 the other way round and consider what would need changing to make that work). It is interesting to see things through Lucy’s eyes, especially when she almost becomes Michael, by using his and their life in her work.
*** SPOILERS FOLLOW ***
Their early days together are too easy, and there is a hint of residual sadness and someone always holding back. As this is Yates, the happiness doesn’t last and there are some painfully awkward scenes, such as when Michael is pleased at the way Lucy defends his career (or lack of) to her father, only to be told she did it for her, not for him: the “clumsiest embrace of their lives” follows. Similarly, there were friends who “wouldn’t feel like themselves until he was gone” – ouch.
It felt less polished than other Yates I have read. For example, I felt there were many gaps, particularly an understanding of what Michael writes, his style, what drives him etc, and the lack of input from friends and relatives at various times in their lives. There are also long stretches with oddly little mention of their daughter Laura (you lose track of how old she is, wonder who is babysitting or if she’s being left alone etc); she seems a ghost remnant of their marriage, but maybe that was the intention.
Despite its weaknesses, I found it utterly compelling (I dreamed about it) and was almost reluctant to get to the end.
Oh, and there is a section where it helps (but is not essential) if you’re familiar with Tennessee Williams’ Streetcar Named Desire.