This is the second novel I’ve read in a year in which traditional gender roles are reversed within a marriage – Andrew Miller’s The Crossing saw Tim decide to stay at home and look after their child while Maud continues her work in clinical research – and I’ve since read a third, Sarah Moss’ superb The Tidal Zone (review to follow soon). Three in a year might seem a high score but you’d think over a decade and a half into the 21st century it would be a more ubiquitous and therefore unremarkable theme. Coincidentally, Jane Rogers’ Eleanor – like Maud – is engaged in medical research as is Conrad. The difference between them is that while Eleanor is a star in her particular sphere, Conrad’s work has stalled.
When Eleanor returns from spending the weekend with her lover she‘s expecting to find Conrad at home, back from his conference in Munich. At first she’s almost relieved, setting about making the house looked lived in despite the fact that Conrad is all too well aware of Louis. As the hours pass, anxiety slips in. Eleanor speculates about Conrad’s absence – perhaps he met someone at the conference, maybe he has his own affair to distract him upsetting as that may seem. The truth is very different: Conrad has fled Munich, convinced he’s seen the young animal rights activist who’s been stalking him, and headed for Rome. Spooked and anxious, he gets off the train in Bologna, worried that Maddy has seen him boarding it. With no suitcase and very little money, he books into a hotel, roaming the Bologna streets aimlessly for several days. One evening lost, feverish and hallucinating he is saved by the kindness of a stranger who takes him in. Eleanor and Conrad spend their time apart revisiting memories of parenthood, thinking about the role each has played in the other’s life and how they have arrived at a point in their relationship where they are so far apart.
Through Eleanor and Conrad’s alternating narratives, Rogers presents a nuanced portrait of a marriage in which traditional male/female roles are upended. Eleanor is intensely involved in her work while Conrad much preferred taking care of their four children when they were young, pushed into his organ transplant research by Eleanor and increasingly unhappy in it. Eleanor’s relationship with her children is distant, Conrad’s close. Neither of them talk to each other. Conrad’s abrupt absence and the crisis it precipitates forces Eleanor to reassess their relationship but Rogers resists any fairy tale ending, instead offering her readers an entirely plausible resolution. The novel’s secondary theme of animal experimentation is neatly stitched in, with arguments deftly rehearsed on both sides. It’s a thoroughly enjoyable and absorbing read. Not the first novel by Rogers I’ve read but it’s prompted me to think I should seek out more.