Alice Thomas Ellis skewers the attitudes and expectations which her characters bring to love and marriage, both as they live their own lives and as they judge the lives of others. But she is also an understanding author, recognizing that their foibles and limitations stem from their upbringing and experience, as they muddle along as best they can, aided by each other, and sometimes the church. This three-part novel concerns the imminent marriage of twenty-year-old Margaret to Syl, a man in his forties, and is told through three points of view: Margaret, who does not love Syl but intends to go through with the wedding; Syl's mother, the sensible Mrs. Monro, who, abandoned by her husband, does not want the marriage to take place; and Lili, a friend of Margaret's mother from school in Egypt, who arrives in a whirlwind, determined to upset the status quo.
From Margaret we learn of her passionate first love and a shocking death that have occurred during the year she spent away at school in Egypt. Devoutly religious, Margaret is torn between the concepts of romantic and religious love, and she cannot seem to reconcile the church's teachings regarding love, sex, sin, and death. Mrs. Monro, an elderly lady for whom death is very real, if not imminent, is hiding secrets associated with her own past love life. For her, too, love is associated with death and God, though in ways vastly different from Margaret's experience. Into this mix comes Lili, half Egyptian, half English, a free spirit unconcerned with traditional, churchly definitions of sin, and sexually liberated in her own life. Lili is determined to save Margaret from the "pointless secular martyrdom" of marriage.
A sensitive, philosophical exploration of love and sex, God and sin, and life and death, the novel is also an examination of the compromises people make, willingly or unwillingly, in order to find happiness during their lives and loves. Sparkling dialogue and thoughtful interior monologues reveal the sadness, loneliness, and confusion within many of the characters, while Ellis's sense of irony and ability to create absurd scenes lift the mood with cathartic comedy. Gently satirical and full of wise observations, this is an insightful and thoroughly entertaining study of several characters, interconnected by love and marriage, as they try to "muddle through." Mary Whipple