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Ordinary People (2018)
by Diana Evans
No current Talk conversations about this book.
Three and a half stars. ( )
I don’t pretend to know anything about modern music, African food or culture, even some of the books I’ve never heard of. Yet there are aspects of this book which are very familiar. Relationships go through phases and children bring change and concern. Like A Spool of Blue Thread this novel is about family and ‘ordinary people.’
This book is about Michael and Melissa they live in an old 1900’s house with their young daughter Ria and baby Blake. The house appears to collect dust and Melissa has a problem constantly cleaning. She feels unsettled, that the house is haunted, and a pest infestation only adds to this.
Michael travels across London to work and uses this time to reflect on his past life, previous relationships and how his life with Melissa has changed over thirteen years. He likens his life to a John Legend album with loss, heartache and infidelity. When Melissa looks at her life, she sees the impossible task of being a mother and tying to maintain a career. The conflicting advice in books, the competition between mothers, the self-doubt, that she should have a career to give her a sense of achievement and self-worth. As a freelance magazine writer she can work from home, but she also has the children’s interruptions to cope with. When Michael comes home he retreats to his phone, an essential part of life, but a barrier to communication.
There is very little drama in this book which may make it a little slow for some people’s tastes. There is a great emphasis on food and music, which I assume has great cultural significance and for that reason makes it interesting. The preparation of food for Melissa, appears to offer warmth and comfort, there is a connection to home and family, not just to an event, but a cultural bond, a heritage. There is a nice chapter on multi-culturalism emphasizing richness and diversity.
I am not sure I would read this writer again. It was nice to see things from a different perspective and it is good to recognise everyone has the same hopes and dreams, but I’m afraid it may be a bit too ‘ordinary’ for some people.
‘Ordinary people’ follows the fortunes of two couples, Michael and Melissa and Damian and Stephanie as they attempt to come to terms with their relationships within their family life and with each other. All are in their mid/late 30s and have known each other for around 15 years and both couples have young children. Diana Evans has written a tender and revealing novel about the struggles of keeping a marriage and family together when the first flush of love and passion has waned and there is a realisation that not all planned ambitions are going to be achieved. How the couples react and cope with this unfolding revised situation makes for a moving portrait of modern life.
Melissa and Michael are the perfect couple. Attractive and well-matched, they are the couple their friends would say is the most likely to be together forever. They have two lovely children and they've just moved into a house of their own. But the new house, far in the outer reaches of London's suburbs, means that Michael has a long commute each day and returns home in the evening tired, and Melissa is finding that caring for two small children isn't something she's managing well on her own. She'd thought she'd be able to do some freelance work during nap time, but nap time isn't guaranteed and even when the baby agrees to a nap, Melissa has trouble getting work done in the limited time. And the house doesn't feel welcoming. There's mold in odd corners and her daughter's skin always seems dry.
Their good friends, Damien and Stephanie are also entering into a year of disquiet. Damien's estranged father has died and while he is sure he feels nothing, he is far more affected than he believes he is. And his own unsettled feelings are causing him to feel stifled by Stephanie's devotion to family life. Which is not something she has any patience for.
Shortlisted for the Women's Prize, Diana Evans's novel explores the marriages of two black couples living in London in the year that was marked by the election of Barack Obama and the death of Michael Jackson. Evans allows her characters to inhabit marriages as stressed and imperfect as those in any of the many, many novels about white British couples, she's not interested in writing about anyone behaving in an exemplary fashion. There's a lot of substance here, but I was left more interested in the marriage that received far less attention. Evans definitely nails the different ways two people living in the same place can manage to not talk to each other. I was left feeling as though I never really understood any of the characters, but the blame for that is certainly not entirely the author's.
This review can also be found on my blog.
I barely know where to begin with this review! Ordinary People is my first official (aka intentional) Women’s Prize Longlist read. I chose to start with it for one simple reason: it was available at the library. I truly didn’t know what to expect, as I went in without reading the blurb or any reviews -- daring, I know. What I got was a quietly beautiful examination of love and relationships.
Before Melissa met Michael, her attitude towards men was one of indifference. They were strange and hungry beings. They had strange bodies. They wanted things.
The writing took a bit for me to adjust to, as it’s not my usual fare. It had a rather meandering approach that was somewhat dreamy in nature. There was a lot of gazing into the past, explaining how the characters got to be where they are now. It took me for a bit of a turn; I’d expect a brief sidebar, maybe a paragraph or two of background regarding the situation at hand, and would instead get a deep dive that seemed irrelevant in some ways. As I got used to it, I found these histories relaxing, a reprieve from the conflicts the present day versions of these characters were dealing with.
“Do you think, sometimes,” she asked Simon, “that people who like each other are not meant to touch each other?”
The book centers around two black couples: Michael and Melissa, and Damian and Stephanie. Michael and Melissa have recently had their second child. Michael misses the spark that their relationship used to hold, hungers for the woman he felt Melissa used to be. Melissa has lost any desire for Michael and instead feels trapped in her role as a mother, anxiety continuing to mount within her as the book progresses. On the other hand, Damian has recently lost his father and seems to be pulling away from his wife as he refuses to process his grief. Stephanie holds strong and is determined to keep their relationship afloat.
For the sake of love, for the sake of chocolate, for the sake of their children, she did what he wanted.
I’m not sure whether all the characters were meant to be equal, but Michael and Melissa certainly felt like the main characters to me. Melissa in particular drew my sympathy and interest. Michael seemed to think his problems were unbelievably important, but from my perspective they were inane compared to Melissa’s. I don’t know if it was intentional, or if I’m just sick of men who think the world revolves around them, but it did make for an interesting reading experience. I won’t get into it any further than that, or else I risk edging into spoiler territory.
He doesn’t belong to me. Fidelity is so overrated. I think it’s childish, the way people think of it.
Overall, I found it a really enjoyable read. It definitely made me feel quite grateful to be reading the Women’s Prize longlist, as this is something I absolutely would not have read on my own. I can only hope the rest of the books serve me equally well. Anyway, I recommend picking this one up if you’re looking for something introspective to pick up, but not if you’re looking for anything wildly exciting plot-wise, although I will argue that there were some very innovative bits. I may have to check out some more of Evans’ work, as she is quite an impressive writer.
** Selected by the New Yorker, Financial Timesand New Statesmanas a Book of the Year ** 'Diana Evans is a lyrical and glorious writer; a precise poet of the human heart' Naomi Alderman 'You can take a leap, do something off the wall, something reckless. It's your last chance, and most people miss it.' South London, 2008. Two couples find themselves at a moment of reckoning, on the brink of acceptance or revolution. Melissa has a new baby and doesn't want to let it change her but, in the crooked walls of a narrow Victorian terrace, she begins to disappear. Michael, growing daily more accustomed to his commute, still loves Melissa but can't quite get close enough to her to stay faithful. Meanwhile out in the suburbs, Stephanie is happy with Damian and their three children, but the death of Damian's father has thrown him into crisis - or is it something, or someone, else? Are they all just in the wrong place? Are any of them prepared to take the leap? Set against the backdrop of Barack Obama's historic election victory, Ordinary Peopleis an intimate, immersive study of identity and parenthood, sex and grief, friendship and aging, and the fragile architecture of love. With its distinctive prose and irresistible soundtrack, it is the story of our lives, and those moments that threaten to unravel us.
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Melvil Decimal System (DDC)823.92Literature English & Old English literatures English fiction Modern Period 2000-
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