Michael, a British college student from a conservative background, is invited to attend a birthday party at his friend Adam Hanbury's country estate. The estate is called "Egypt," and to Michael, the place and the people are as exotic as any faraway country. Adam's large, messy family seems wonderfully witty and worldly. The Hanburys' world is idyllic, pastoral and bohemian, and Michael longs to be a part of it, especially when he sees the birthday girl, Caris, a free spirit who poses nude for the family's artist-in-residence: "She looked more extraordinary than any person I had seen before, although it is hard to say exactly why she gave this impression...She looked like a goddess."
After Michael enjoys a too-brief kiss from Caris, the narrative flashes forward more than a decade. Now in his mid-thirties, living in Bath with his wife Rebecca and their three-year-old son Hamish, Michael seems to be enjoying an orthodox existence that is diametrically opposed to the Hanburys' bohemian lifestyle. Although Michael hasn't spoken to Adam in several years, he can't stop thinking about that one magical party. When a balcony on his ramshackle house (donated by his in-laws) collapses, nearly killing him, Michael decides to accept an invitation to visit the Hanburys again to help with the spring lambing while Adam's father is in the hospital.
Arriving at Egypt with his young son in tow, Michael is surprised to discover that all is not as it seemed at this country estate. Adam himself is now married and living nearby; Caris is a voluptuous hippie living on an all-women's commune; Adam's mother and stepmother, who seem on the surface to be friends, secretly loathe and resent each other; and Adam's ailing father is not entirely the benevolent patriarch he seems. As Michael grows increasingly disillusioned not only with the Hanburys but also with his own troubled marriage, he must figure out how --- or whether --- to return to his former life.
Set in a manor house in the English countryside, IN THE FOLD has the feeling of early-twentieth century comedies of manners, with some distinctly modern twists. Although the novel does have its moments of levity, its brand of humor is definitely dark, and it can be difficult to find any characters to like (including the narrator himself). Nevertheless, Rachel Cusk's writing is tight and biting, and the novel's characterizations are complex, nuanced, and sometimes a little uncomfortable --- much like family life in the real world.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on January 22, 2011
In the Fold