The Couples by Lauren Mackenzie: A grown up Sally Rooney

Cover image for The Couples by Lauren MackenzieI spent quite some time dithering about whether to put my hand up for Lauren Mackenzie’s The Couples. The premise seemed a wee bit tacky: three couples go away together, shedding their domestic responsibilities, get wasted and embark on a game of partner swapping. What swung it for me was Mackenzie’s screenwriting credentials and Stinging Fly contribution, always worth noting. Her debut explores the repercussions of that drunken night, ending fourteen years later.

In candlelight, the house’s cracked plaster and torn curtains disappeared in the shadows and its former grandeur emerged. In response, the men’s voices slowed and deepened, and the women’s laughter sang.

The titular couples have hired a rundown mansion to celebrate Frank’s forty-eighth birthday. After enjoying a delicious supper laid on by their landlady, they walk to the local pub, score some ecstasy and raid the honesty bar back at Harwood House where the game is proposed: the three women are to text the man of their choice. Next morning, Eva looks out of her bedroom window to see Frank unconscious on the lawn. Her husband, Shay, is asleep in their bed while she revisits memories of talking with Connor in the early hours. No one is quite sure what their partners did, or who they did it with. These are couples whose lives are closely interwoven: their children are at school together, they have weekly pizza nights, they confide in each other. They’re at that stage in life where childcare must be balanced with work, worries about parents’ health are appearing on the horizon, and for some finances are under strain. The night of Frank’s birthday throws many of those cards up into the air, changing the dynamics of a friendship that feels as close as family.

She had stepped through the looking glass, and everything had shifted.

Mackenzie’s narrative shifts from character to character in a perceptive portrayal of six people whose lives are not quite what they had hoped for at this stage: Bea has channelled her energy into looking out for Connor’s parents while the strains of being a GP tell on him; Frank’s early success as a filmmaker has fizzled out while Lizzie has her hands full with their four children and not much prospect of acting parts; Eva is dealing with the frustrations of primary school teaching while Shay has become caught up with a dodgy building contractor. All are in midlife crisis territory when Frank proposes his game. So far, so cliched you might think, but Mackenzie deftly weaves their lives together, engaging our sympathy for characters easily recognisable at the school gate, supermarket, or wine bar, in a novel which has a very pleasing narrative arc with a nicely ambivalent ending. I thoroughly enjoyed it. Hardly needs saying, given Mackenzie’s background, but it would make a great TV series in the right hands, preferably hers.

John Murray Press: London 9781399809436 304 pages Hardback (Read via NetGalley)

14 thoughts on “The Couples by Lauren Mackenzie: A grown up Sally Rooney”

  1. The premise of this book didn’t engage me any more than it did you. But you appear to have been rewarded by pushing your reservations aside, so maybe I should too. If this title comes my way.

      1. I thought it looked more like something that was self-published. I think it’s the font and choice of colour and the way the picture has been cropped ‍♀️

  2. Maybe it was you who posted about this one earlier? I added it to my TBR–the “Harwood House” thing [Harewood House] caught my eye. I’m going to try this one–it may or may not end up being for me, but your review is compelling and I at least want to try it.

Leave a comment ...

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.