This is the first book I’ve read by Lionel Shriver (except, of course, for We Need To Talk About Kevin) and so I came to it without many preconceptions. More novella than novel, it impressed me a great deal with its incisive and unsentimental view of human nature. We may not like the picture that Shriver reflects back at us, but her characters all feel so very convincing. It’s a story that many of us can easily imagine, even if we don’t have direct experience of it, because it starts with a friendship: an old friendship, of twenty years’ standing, between a woman, Jillian Frisk, and a man, Weston Babansky, and how their easy dynamic is challenged by the arrival of Weston’s girlfriend Paige.
Jillian and Weston have been friends since university. They’ve had a couple of flings over the years, but the sexual aspect of their relationship never seemed to work. Instead, they’ve built a strong platonic companionship based on thrice-weekly games of tennis, followed by long, rambling conversations about life, the universe and everything. They complement each other well: Jillian is a headstrong, maverick, free-spirited creative whose colourful presence has something of a Marmite effect on those around her (‘she didn’t seem capable of maintaining a mousy, head-down demeanor for more than half an hour, during which the sensation was tantamount to a Chinese foot-binding of the soul‘). Weston, or ‘Baba’ as Jillian calls him, is laid-back and vacillating, aiming to get through life without ruffling too many feathers (‘he was prone to confuse thinking about something with doing something about it‘). They’ve always been there for one another.
And then Paige joins the equation and, suddenly, things are unbalanced. We see things in turn from Jillian’s and Weston’s points of view, and so we can trace the gradual rising tension in this odd three-way relationship. Shriver is brilliant at evoking the shifting tides of relationships, deep currents which leave the surface apparently unchanged. Her three characters are all entirely believable: bouncy, oblivious Jillian; tentative Weston; and prickly, defensive Paige. And their interaction is utterly, painfully convincing, as Paige’s resentment begins to colour Weston’s own feelings about Jillian, or ‘Frisk’, as he has always called her, with a sort of back-slapping masculine chumminess.
Now, seen through Paige’s eyes, their relationship becomes less innocent: Jillian isn’t just a valued tennis partner and confidant, but a potential threat: ‘an ex-lover of all things, and a rather intemperate one at that, who wasn’t always artful about negotiating the spiky geometry of the triangle’. And, when the arty, somewhat self-absorbed Jillian makes an impulsive gift to the new couple, all the strain of their three-way relationship becomes concentrated in one object. It’s beautifully handled and, for the most part, I thought Shriver’s writing was excellent, economical without being austere (my only gripe is her occasional use of ‘introduced’ instead of ‘said’, in contexts meaning ‘began’ or ‘ventured’. I haven’t come across ‘introduced’ used as a verb in this way before and I don’t think I like it. But am I behind the times?).
Intelligent, probing and compassionate, this novella packs more insights into human nature into its 129 pages than many novels manage in 300. Shriver is a virtuoso of the troubled spirit; of the shift of focus that renders things less than innocent; guilt, jealousy and simmering unease. I think I’m going to have to read more of her work (and perhaps even revisit the ubiquitous Kevin).
P.S. Wikipedia tells me Shriver was born in 1957. Look at her author photo above. How is this possible? Does she have an enchanted portrait tucked away in an attic somewhere?