Obvious, but often overlooked by financial pundits, is the private misery that arrives in the wake of public economic implosion. In a world where there are novels about everything from health-insurance villainy to school shootings, it's no shock to encounter one whose pivot is rampant unemployment and stock-market meltdown. The reviewer in Booklist even speculates about a new category of commercial fiction called "recessionist lit"!
That may not sound like promising ground for a novel. But Elizabeth Buchan has a gift for irresistible storytelling --- Brits, in my opinion, are much better than Americans, Stephen King excepted, at pulling off intelligent, sophisticated bestsellers --- and with SEPARATE BEDS, she turns a dour premise into a charming, ultimately optimistic book.
We meet Annie and Tom Nicholson and their children at a moment just before the financial storm. Annie is a hospital administrator; Tom is a workaholic director at the BBC's World Service (its international radio station). Jake is a woodworker married to a banker and the father of a baby girl; Emily, recently graduated, is a would-be writer living with and off her parents; and Mia, Jake's twin, is the secret sorrow at the heart of this apparently sound, normal, prosperous family. She left home in a rage five years ago after a horrific argument with her father. Tom and Annie have not shared a bedroom since.
Then Tom loses his job, and all at once the house seems made of flimsy cards that the merest breath could topple. Crisis piles on crisis: Jake's wife leaves him, and his business is doing so poorly that he and his infant daughter move in with Annie and Tom. The income from Tom's mother's investments dwindles with the recession, and this irascible, lonely woman (paging Maggie Smith!) also takes up residence. Somehow a stray dog joins the household, too. Suddenly, the Nicholsons have three generations under one roof, the sort of sprawling, archaic family arrangement that was supposed to have become obsolete.
The eventful plot, alternating among the principal characters' points of view, finds Tom sunk in depression from the loss of his beloved career; Jake fighting for custody of his child; and Emily, whining all the while, looking for a job instead of writing a WUTHERING HEIGHTS for the 21st century. Annie --- who, like all Buchan's smart, likable fictional wives, manages to be heroic but not unpleasantly saintly, angry but not bitter --- struggles to hold it all together.
Annie is by far the most finely drawn and compelling character. Long marriages are Buchan's home territory, and she has devoted many pages to what happens when one or another partner is bored, tempted, betrayed, abandoned, or traded in for a younger model (since she often focuses on women of 40 and up, this last is a frequent theme. If Hollywood got a clue from her books, there would be juicy parts for grown-up actresses and not just starry ingénues).
It's no great mystery how things will turn out. After all, the blurb on the book jacket describes SEPARATE BEDS as "a story of economic breakdown and romantic recovery." Catchy, but a spoiler. Even the absent Mia, though the details of her departure aren't revealed right away, doesn't present enough of a mystery to drive the novel. Suspense, however, is not what this book is about. What keeps us reading are the poignant and telling details of everyday life, the inside story of marriage, parenthood and work.
Work. Buchan could have chosen to make it a rather generic backdrop for the family drama; instead, she allows the changes in her characters' circumstances to suggest how a job can, for better or worse, define one's identity. In a particularly poignant scene, Tom goes out in the early morning to look at his former office, automatically putting on his work suit: "He shaded his eyes and gazed for a long time up at the building in which he had spent a considerable part of his life. It was extraordinary, unthinkable, that he had nothing more to do with it, or it with him." Meanwhile, Emily starts working at an oil company and, surprisingly, likes it better than her lonely artistic endeavors; and Jake, the purest of craftsmen ("Releasing the inner life of a piece of wood was as necessary to him as breathing"), is forced to get practical, starting an appliance-repair business out of his former workshop.
I guess it could be said that there is a certain predictability and patness to SEPARATE BEDS. The very title is TV- or movie-ready. But Buchan is not going for grim realism, GRAPES OF WRATH-style, and we should not expect it of a writer who has never strayed far from solidly upper-middle-class venues. Although the Nicholsons are shocked into compromises and sacrifices, they are hardly starving. Even their second-best jobs do not involve busing tables or cleaning somebody else's toilets.
In that sense, this is a bourgeois fairy tale, happy ending and all. But comfort fiction has its place, and in these stressful times, it is refreshing to read a novel that acknowledges the economic crisis without giving in to utter despair or cynicism. Whatever the ups and downs of the market, Buchan seems to be saying, we can hope that people will fend off blows to bank account and ego and carry on: improvising, adjusting, making do. And maybe, if they're very lucky, they will find out something new and encouraging about themselves.
Reviewed by Kathy Weissman on March 28, 2011