My rating: 3 of 5 stars
This book is an intoxicating cocktail of familiar ingredients that smelled spicy, was near impossible to put down once started, and had my tummy turning in places. It is a script in waiting that could be equally imagined on stage or screen. The witty and sharp writing engages, the characters are familiar, the story lines flowing and deftly resolved. It’s an Eternal Triangle of players who neither trust nor care about each other, with a sane onlooker who sweeps up one of the broken pieces.
The three leading characters manage to screw each other into a complex not-so-private tryst in a French farmhouse, with all the accouterments. Like most ménage à trois it ends in tears. Adam comes out relatively undamaged and the other two get what they deserve.
Beyond the characters, the 60s music references and the youthful salacious romping in Melbourne followed by more salacious middle-aged romping in France two decades on, the book initially explores ego in relationships, the tension between giving and receiving, balancing self and the others’ needs. Adam could not cross this line of commitment in either of his relationships. In his youth, he loved but would not commit (resign his consulting gig) to stay with Angela, and he lost her. Later, with the eminently sensible and mature-beyond-her-years Claire, he again holds back, leading to another disengagement.
Adam, in his immaturity, is just being a typical unreconstructed male and in no way to be pitied or pardoned. I think this was an important subtext for the author as it resolves in the obvious fashion in the final chapter — Adam learns to give a bit, and guess what, it all turns out OK. In this, he learns a lesson but still only comes out as the second-most most likable of the four.
In my ‘dislike stakes’ Angelina takes the cake. She bears a feminine name for a predictably pretty leading lady, variously referred to as Angie — forming another (unexplored) Jaggerian musical reference — and Angel. The wistful and carefree way she is drawn in the first half of the book elicited a passing image of Peter Weir’s Miranda, and I thought I’d like her to the end, in a soapie-star kind of way, but we discover she’s no Botticelli Angel. She unselfconsciously allows herself to become Belle de Jour in a scheme concocted by her professional negotiator husband (Charlie) to determine their futures. Adam is up for it, literally and figuratively, despite not knowing what he is getting himself into. I find this relationship premise — that one’s indiscretion can be made up for by granting your partner a free hand to commit their own similar infidelity — dubious, and destructive of trust. Anyone with even a hint of feminist sensibilities will hate this part. I’m sure the author’s departure from a straighter path in this regard was calculated to position the product.
Something else irked me about Angie. Pairing this soap star with the occupation of Equal Opportunity Commissioner stretched credibility, even if she was a product of the leafy-Melbournian privileged class. I could have accepted her character more easily if she’d had no profession at mid-age — a kept woman, an elegant thin-fingered attachment to a sugar-daddy would at least be consistent with the man-eater she had become. And nothing much is made of her lawyer-ish achievements other than to add a varnish of respectability and desirabilty, at least to the two males, neither of whom needed it to stoke their ample fires of passion. On this, the book appeals to a baby-boomer-ish notion of lawyering as the unmistakable marker of the upper class. Ask any young lawyer if this association holds true today in their world.
Charlie… what’s not to love about an affable over-sized Australian who knows his foie gras from his boudin noir. Other than he’s an XXL-sized prat, full of pretentious wine-talk, affectations, and a trader’s mentality on people and relationships. Admittedly he puts a lot of this on in an attempt to keep Angelina, even so, I disliked him considerably, hoped for a second (fatal) heart attack as he walked up the hill carrying his full butter croissants, and wished he’d got less of what he wanted in the end.
The honor of My Favorite Character goes to Claire, who the author deftly uses to model actual depth. When Adam loses his share of their joint house deposit in a dumb investment scheme, she checks the facts, ensures he was not dishonest with her, then forgives him in an instant. She stays home from her demanding job to get the piano tuned for him. Later she accepts Adam’s remote dalliancing with Angelina on the chin and still leaves the door open to him, should he come to his senses. What gold she is! The author has no doubt drawn on observations of a lot of people to write this book — I wonder, did he witness a real-life Claire at any stage?
Finally to the ever-present fifth character in the story, the music. Popular music is a sharp-edged weapon, one man’s meat is another’s poison. Adam knows this from making up mix-tapes of his friend’s life-changing songs, finding them to be pedestrian because their meaning is rooted in the hearer’s context. Adam calls up boomer classics with the reverence and fervor of a Vietnam Vet. Wasn’t it a bit odd that Adam lived to the soundtrack of his dad’s era? Don’t young people adopt the music of their generation? Silverchair anyone? Adam’s musical taste was un-synched with that of his peers by two decades. Here, the author’s personal taste overrides the integrity of his lead character.
I appreciated rather than liked this book. Good writing, facts checked, strong interplay, all threads resolved. Accurate memories of Melbourne in the 1980s. It’s been a long time since I rearranged my day so as to be able to finish a book, but it was out of a desire to see how this train-wreck resolved rather than any sense of amusement or pleasure. I’m pretty sure I was grimacing and/or biting my lip as I read. I hope the author writes more in this style, if he can get a complex plot and characters together as he has done here with the whimsy and humor of Rosie and Don he might write an Australian classic.