Janine and Dougie were married for fifteen years until Janine decided she could no longer live with his addictions and his infidelity. Although she is now in a relationship with Dependable Mike, the depth of Janine and Dougie’s history together still lies like an unbreakable, invisible bond through Janine’s teenage daughter, Stevie. Their friends are something of a mixed bag including Dougie’s best friend Simon, and his wife, Victoria – who is so desperate for her own child she is often blind to Simon’s slippery ways. But when it comes to Stevie, Simon bites off more than he can chew and eventually, the dynamic of all their relationships implode.
This is a novel about relationships and how they connect: lovers, friends, husbands, wives, siblings, step-children, parents. It tackles some big issues alongside the domestic strata confirming that genuine, selfless love can overcome anything; and how something better can grow from the ashes of despair. Dougie enjoys the most development as a character, he’s so vibrant and colourful, almost larger than life! But for all his faults he’s big-hearted enough to still care for Janine’s daughter, and his personal struggle to once again build his life back from nothing is an enjoyable, remarkable journey and skilfully executed. The push and pull of emotional chess is rich and insightful, with just enough drama to keep the plot boiling without losing a grip on reality or resorting to sentiment. Deeply compelling, relatable, and hugely enjoyable.
Twins Frances and Lizzie couldn’t be more different. Lizzie is the traditional achiever with husband and four children, a thriving business set in a fashionable town, and a large period-style family home furnished in the epitome of good taste to show for it all. Her days are interminably busy since looking after everything she’s created with her husband is a full-time job; and when the family finances take a considerable and worrying nosedive, their situation raises serious questions about what they value. Meanwhile, Frances creates a bespoke travel business and whilst seeking out off-the-beaten-track holidays for her clients, she meets and begins an affair with an enigmatic, wealthy – albeit married – Spanish hotelier. It seems that the freedom of choice for Frances is far more liberating and interesting than an indulgent lifestyle, and Lizzie finds she’s suddenly less than fulfilled with her lot.
Again, a misleading title as this novel is much more about the complexities of the family dynamic rather than a casual romance. This is a work-life balance problem versus feminism kind of novel, set in the early nineties. I really enjoyed the way these characters developed and the questions raised by their actions. My only negative was the amount of background detail about Andalusia, although the imagery was vivid and engaging.
Stephen Desmonde is expected to succeed his father as the rector of a rural parish, but Stephen is a sensitive, passionate artist driven by an obsession to discover the beauty in truth. The lack of understanding and subsequent derision from his family results in Stephen leaving for Paris – the hub of all things creative – and then to travel across Spain. He’s a passive character, spurned in love, starved, cheated, forced to take a tough road, and to suffer terribly for believing in his art. Material comforts are sparse but his journey, both artistically, physically, and spiritually, all culminate into a rich and multi-layered experience.
So many great artists are not understood or revered until after their death. Desmonde also falls victim to this stereotype, although arguably some of this down to his pride and lack of interest in material gain. Above all, Stephen Desmonde’s story exposes the flaws of Christian beliefs and the perceived realities of war during the early 20th century. Desmonde and his family are real flesh and blood, as are the many characters who play numerous supporting roles. The depiction of life at Stillwater in England, and of France and Spain are deep and rich without compromising reality.
I was thoroughly engrossed in this book. Cronin is a master of historical detail and perspectives, and manages to extract every ounce of empathy for his protagonist.