British journalist Durrant’s first novel follows a familiar trajectory for high-end romantic fiction, yet it’s a standout for its rich detail and deceptively weightless prose.
While Jake works late at the ad agency, Maggie Owens raises their two boys in a comfortable London suburb (even though Jake and Maggie remain unmarried). The two have lately grown distant, when Maggie bumps into Claire, the golden girl from their schooldays (a popular plot device this season: see Jane Green’s Bookends, p. 515) who is still glamorous and still makes Maggie feel dowdy and boring. Claire’s behavior, in fact, soon convinces Maggie that she’s the reason for Jake’s long hours and frequent business trips, and when Pete, the Aussie gardener, enters her life, Maggie embarks on an affair of her own. Nothing new so far, but Durrant’s wry and precise observation of Maggie’s middle-class milieu—from the sub rosa playground status wars (“nonworking mothers are all obsessed with other people’s help, as if our children’s preoccupation with fairness had rubbed off on us”) and the casual detail perfectly conveyed (a pregnant woman in the shallow end of the pool with her “legs splayed like a Beanie Baby plonked on a nursery shelf”) and on to the nature of long-term relationships (“something with edges was flying around in the air, catching in our hair and jangling our nerves)—makes it all seem like unexplored territory. Except for a car accident that serves as the crisis causing Maggie to see things anew, there are no singular, dramatic ups and downs: Maggie’s world is an accumulation of unremarkable moments, hence with the feel of real life.
Giving a sly nod to genre conventions, Durrant ends with a marriage proposal, but this is no fairy tale, and Maggie’s response, along with all that’s come before, puts this one head and shoulders above most of the “chick-lit” that will flank it on the shelves.