A slice-of-life quietly chronicles the ways domestic lives are roiled by unexpected changes and losses that challenge a retired couple’s good intentions.
Like all finely wrought novels celebrating domesticity, appearances are deceptive as seemingly placid and conventional characters confront inner turmoil and even the most ordered suburbs are subject to violence. The protagonist in this latest from Booker winner (1974) Middleton (Changes and Chances, 1992, etc.) is John Stone, 67 and the retired headmaster of a distinguished state school. John and his wife, Peg, live in Beechnall, a provincial town in the English Midlands, where both are still involved in the community. They have a large semidetached Victorian villa with a garden that John tends daily, and their neighbors are Annie and Harry Fisher, whose house is a mirror image of theirs. As the story begins, Peg is away in Scotland with older sister May, and when Annie Fisher comes over for tea, she tells John she has a lump in her breast and must undergo some tests. While she talks, John remembers how she seduced him when he first came to Beechnall, and how over the years they had intermittently continued their relationship. As John’s memories mix with the present, he and Peg try to help May, a widow who’s being courted by an obsessive widower; counsel both May’s son John James and his partner, Linda, a successful banker like John James, who wants him to give up his job and live in the country; and comfort Annie when Harry suddenly dies. Never sure that their efforts matter, they still feel obliged to help, though their world is changing: a car is abandoned and set on fire on their nice street; before he dies, Harry is questioned by the police because a woman he had a relationship with has been murdered; and May’s suitor, discouraged, has an emotional collapse in her home.
A quite celebration of the examined life lived with rueful acceptance.