I’m fortunate to be in a long and happy relationship which is perhaps why I’m drawn to novels about couples who’re are still together after many years. The novels below explore five long relationships, some similar, others very different, all but one with links to a full review.
Set in Morecambe, Cath Barton’s In the Sweep of the Bay is a little gem which follows Ted and Rene from the ‘50s, when they met at the local dance hall, into the twenty-first century when death finally parts them. Ted works in the family ceramics business, happily fulfilled by his work, while Rene brings up their daughters and does the housework, retreating to the kitchen when the carefully sealed lid threatens to come off her frustrations. Neither speaks to the other of the hurt and sorrow each of them feels as they become increasingly distant, all intimacy lost. There’s such an aching sadness in this brief understated novella which made me long for Ted and Rene to share their feelings. Sadly, Cath Barton’s publisher has now ceased trading but should you wish to buy a copy, Cath has said she’s happy for me to pass on her email address. Drop me a line via my contact page if you’d like it.
Addison Jones’ Wait for Me Jack is also about a relationship fraught with difficulties. Beginning with their first meeting in 1950, contrasted sharply with the day the couple are finally parted in 2014, Jones’ novel tells the story of Jack and Milly’s marriage backwards. The narrative is a little fragmented in the way that memories are but it’s all beautifully done, anchored by recurring motifs: Milly’s grey honeymoon dress, Jack’s musings about his first love. Rather like Ted and Rene, they’re a couple very much of their time – he forges ahead into the world, setting up as a successful small publisher funded by her inheritance, while she stays at home to look after the kids, always feeling a bit left behind in the competition that their marriage sometimes becomes. A witty, perceptive portrait of a relationship which survives sixty years despite its many batterings.
Sue Miller’s Monogamy explores a long marriage between two very different people: convivial bookseller Graham and Annie, an artist, self-contained and sometimes a little remote. On the eve of an author event just before Annie’s new photographic exhibition, Graham seems preoccupied. Then something happens that will irrevocably interrupt the intimate call and response of this settled, happy marriage. Each character is developed with empathetic acuity in this is nuanced, tender portrait of a mature relationship. I’ve long been a fan of Miller’s intelligent perceptive fiction which seems to slip under the radar here in the UK. If you’re in the market for an author of quietly thoughtful, intelligent fiction, she has a pleasingly lengthy backlist to explore.
Jon McGregor’s Lean Fall Stand sees a dramatic event in a marriage which has allowed both partners to follow their own paths. Robert is a technical assistant who’s spent much of the past thirty years in Antarctica, providing backup for scientists, while Anna has pursued her own successful career, relishing her independence. When Robert is struck down by a massive stroke their carefully crafted compromise is threatened as Anna finds herself in the role of full-time carer, an arrangement that suits neither of them. McGregor’s portrayal of this destabilised marriage is both perceptive and compassionate. A quietly powerful book, unafraid to explore the boundaries of language.
Based loosely on her grandmother’s life, Rachel Malik’s Miss Boston and Miss Hargeaves is the story of a relationship which in modern times would have become a marriage, begun when such an idea was unthinkable. Struggling to keep the family farm afloat, Elsie Boston decides to take on a Land Girl. Rene Hargreaves is a Manchester woman who has left her gambling husband and three children, passing herself off as a widow. By the time Elsie is forced off the farm by her opportunistic neighbours, their lives have become so entwined that they leave together, settling in Cornwall almost two decades after they met, enjoying a quiet routine until the arrival of Rene’s husband. Malik delicately sketches the relationship between Elsie and Rene, its changes subtly shaded in. A touching, thoroughly absorbing novel which reminds us just how far attitudes to same sex relationships have progressed. Some things really do get better.
Any novels about long relationships you’d like to share?
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