Maggie O’Farrell’s fifth novel is a typically O’Farrell-esque relationships-based psychological drama, depicting the lives of two separate couples some fifty years apart. The drama progresses steadily within the two stories more or less in parallel, and O’Farrell manages extremely successfully to switch between the two, aided by the use of sound, well-researched period detail, such that the atmosphere in both is convincingly distinct. (The earlier-set story appears to this indirectly-informed observer to be more 60s swinging London than the same city in the 50s, but let that pass – the key remains that the two stories are quite separate in their environments.)
O’Farrell captures extremely well the shocking impact of a new baby on a reasonably new, and somewhat uncertain, relationship and portrays well the questions that such a dramatic change bring to what had previously been held secure. In the two female leads we have two extremely strong, well-drawn characters and O’Farrell has undeniable skill with crafting believable women on the pages of her novels but, in contrast, the male leads are somewhat less strong here being, in the one case, straight from central casting and, in the other, and on whom the tale spins, unfortunately rather faint. The minor characters are also rather two-dimensional (regardless of gender). O’Farrell spends less time on dramatising her male characters and, in this instance, given the plot, the result is a slightly less successful development than the book’s themes deserve; a stronger, better drafted male character would have resulted in a better realisation of her aims for the novel.
Nevertheless, this is a very readable novel which enhances O’Farrell’s reputation as a gifted crafter of cleverly-written, engaging and satisfying stories which both hook the reader fully into the telling and which pack a compelling punch.