Three variously embattled marriages and their complex interconnections are scrupulously analyzed in the veteran author’s new novel—his 43rd, in a half-century’s work including the 1974 Booker Prize–winning Holiday.
Middleton is a domestic realist whose quiet narratives, set mostly in the English Midlands, focus on people of the professional classes whose marital and family relationships both circumscribe and define their often intriguingly flawed natures. This novel begins with 30ish accountant John Riley’s visit to the nursing home where his father William languishes in the early stages of Alzheimer’s. Their halting communication initiates a succession of conversations, accomplished in meetings and telephone calls, through which we gradually comprehend their own and their loved ones’ straitened circumstances. John’s mother Ella, a primary-school headmistress, cannot overcome her anger over William’s effective retreat from her—especially after he overcomes his dementia (“heroically”) and begins romancing a fellow patient. Ella’s chic younger sister Irene and her literally distant husband Eric—a busy foreign correspondent—offer tart commentary, moral support and a dash of sexual complication to John’s initially half-hearted, eventually sincere efforts to reconcile with his estranged wife Helen, an emotionally fragile beauty, albeit a successful solicitor. It sounds like soap opera, but isn’t—because Middleton writes incisive, revealing dialogue and radiates empathy for his sometimes annoyingly poky characters. He also suggests—through allusions to Shakespeare—that fools though these middle-class mortals may be, they’re as complicated, ornery and interesting as the people next door. Though this industrious, unpretentious artist is often compared to E.M. Forster and C.P. Snow, he’s more closely akin to early 20th-century realist Arnold Bennett.
Middleton’s fiction doesn’t wave flags or strike sparks. It stares you in the face and tells the plain truth, and it knows more things about us than we might have believed possible.