on 14 July 2007
Set in modern-day London this beautifully structured novel is all about the intersection of love, fate and chance, be it through marriage, family or through friendship. Satisfaction begins as a young woman approaches the Harley Street offices of Clinical Psychologist Patrick McIlhenny. Her name is Amy Marsham and she's come to see Patrick to tell him she's been suffering "from an excess of happiness."
Patrick is at first taken back by Amy's admission, unused to seeing such pleasure in his particular working world, and feeling hypnotized but her presence, he almost finds himself lost to a daydream as he begins to listen to her confession. Apparently, Amy's husband James once had a series of sessions with Patrick ten years ago, James, however, never told his wife about them. Now Amy wants to enquire why her husband visited the psychiatrist and whether James had told him "that he was sick with joy the day he married me?"
Back in the hot and sticky summer of 1994 James and Amy appeared to have the perfect marriage and at least outwardly, James was satisfied to step into his future with assurance; he was, it seemed, destined for contentment and success. His old school mate Archie was always by his side, helping James along and without a doubt their relationship had become something of a mutual admiration society, Archie admiring James without really comprehending the rules he lived by.
But it is Archie's friendship with Amy that seems to the most cause for uneasiness. Amy is of course is married to James, but her focus is always on his best friend. Archie is in fact a man who dares to challenge Amy's perception of happiness and when in a sudden burst of love, he tells her that he may be ill with testicular cancer; Amy becomes so upset and concerned that she can't help but feel that her emotions smack of betrayal.
Meanwhile, Amy must also cope with a surprise pregnancy, a pregnancy that threatens to take life in an unplanned direction, and for reasons that she can't quite gasp, she hasn't yet told James. Indeed, Amy seems to be loosing her footing, her eyes crowded over the disillusionment over the stability and comfort that her marriage and her two children once provided. Now with Archie sick, everything has "started to shift around," and nothing seems to be stable anymore.
It doesn't help that Thea, Amy's high-octane twin sister has just returned from Los Angeles. A successful career woman, Thea seems to represent the antithesis of everything that Amy is not. Theo and Amy have always been in competition, pulling away but then needing each other, to be sure, Thea once accused Amy of always wanting to keep Archie for herself: "he's my friend, mine and James' and I knew him long before you did," Amy tells Thea in a fit of rage.
Thea is clearly nervous at returning to London and into the fold of her family. Equally disappointed with variety and freedom, and impatient both to resume and change her life, she feels nervous at the prospect of seeing Amy again and she knows that if she were to settle back home and change direction, she would certainly have to resolve things with her sister, and despite her academic superiority and obvious sexuality, Thea always felt that Amy "usually won out."
Their beautiful younger sister Grace tries to ease some of the discomfort. A famous television soap opera actress, Grace is considered to be one of Britain's rising stars. She once harbored a secret crush on James and is now unsteadily involved with Sam Harris, the current daytime hunk. However, beneath Grace's bright ambition lies a feeling of uneasiness that she just can't seem to shake.
While Grace becomes a sort of confidante for Amy, James is preoccupied over his sexual fantasies for Grace, and for the first time in his married life he acknowledges that one's family can be a fragile affair. In the interim, the energetic and hedonistic Archie, now overtaken by a type of physical and mental ambush has finally run out of cash, the business he'd started with energy and optimism six year before, with his friend Richard, is now bankrupt.
Presiding over all of this is Lucy Fielding, the family matriarch. Lucy is the author of the Lifelines series of books, a sort of combination of domestic advice and positive thinking, but recently she has been forced to deal with her own particular set of mid-life challenges. Haunted by the memories of her dead husband, and an act of betrayal, she spends her days diverting her thoughts and devoting herself to the terraces of pots and artificial flowerbeds that make up part of her vast rooftop garden.
Certainly the anxieties and the small disloyalties and betrayals that plague this very middle-class English family are quite common, and in a sudden burst of providence, it is left to the always dependable Amy to hopefully pave a way for happiness in a family that had once lost its footing in a world where dissatisfaction seemed to have become the noticeable trait.
Tenderly rendered and also deeply sensual in parts, author Gillian Greenwood probes deep into the past of her characters, dissecting their hopes and aspirations and even their petty dissatisfactions as she moves effortlessly between the three time periods, from 1994 to 2004, and also occasionally to 1984.
Greenwood indeed writes with flashes of astonishing insight, threading her duel narratives together with the themes of love and friendship as this family hurtles through events at a ludicrous rate, forced to deal with the fallout from blame, guilt and punishment, their choices eventually exposing all of the facets and flawed yearnings that make up the human experience. Mike Leonard July 07.