I talked about Elizabeth Day’s earlier novel Paradise City on this Journal last year. That was a book that surprised me at every turn, with characters behaving in ways I didn’t expect, and stories converging spectacularly towards the end. It was the book that introduced me to Day, who is also a fantastic magazine writer for several British publications including Elle and Vogue.
Her latest book, The Party, is less surprising but no less enjoyable. The precis of the plot is thus: Martin and Ben have been best friends since boarding school, a relationship that has carried them through university and later into life, as middle-class Martin becomes a mildly successful journalist and author and Ben muddles his way through business, buoyed by his family name and fortune. At Ben’s 40th birthday party, something shifts in their relationship, exposing long-buried secrets and behaviour that will change everything. Just from reading that you might be able to guess where the story is going.
But that doesn’t make the reading of this book any less of a pleasure. If the plot is predictable – there’s elements of Brideshead Revisited to it but also, more dramatically, the Tom Ripley/Dickie Greenleaf relationship in The Talented Mr Ripley – it is masterfully written by Day. Each chapter is told from a different perspective. Martin as a young child, a loner at school, befriended by Ben, the golden boy, Martin and Ben at Cambridge University, Martin now very much part of Ben’s family, the brother he almost had, Martin and Ben as 20-somethings, living it up in London. This is all interspersed with the present day, a sickeningly slow progression through the party, tension constantly building up, and the ominous entries from Martin’s wife Lucy’s diary, written after the party, looking back on the evening.
Day keeps hold of all these threads in a way that allows you to lose yourself in the story. Like The Talented Mr Ripley, neither Martin nor Tom is particularly likeable, and yet you often find yourself on his side as opposed to the oafish, boorish Ben and his bitchy wife Serena. In fact, it’s Lucy, Martin’s much put-upon wife who you side the most with, and who seems to understand Ben and Martin’s relationship best. There’s one scene, when Martin buys a pair of stupid, trendy hot pink sneakers because Ben has the same ones, and only Lucy seems to see the sadness of this act. Martin just wants to be Ben. Exactly like Ben.
Warning: this is not a happy book and it does not have a happy ending. But it is a smart, very adult novel that I seriously could not put down.
Warning: this is not a happy book and it does not have a happy ending. But it is a smart, very adult novel that I seriously could not put down. Usually, I don’t like books that have such unlikeable characters at their core, but there was something about this story that kept me turning the pages, desperate to get to the heart of that Ben/Martin relationship. So, maybe this book was surprising, after all.