In her novel about middle age, Dainty tells of best friends Jeremy and Sandy, and Sandy’s wife, Penny. Together with Peter and Tim, their two old college pals, they meet for lunch in some of London’s swankiest restaurants to talk about the good old days and voice concern for Sandy, who has recently fallen on hard times. Once a star in the music world but now living in a seedy bed-sit in the outer reaches of Battersea, Sandy looks at the frayed lining of his coat and ruminates how it has become much like his frayed marriage to Penny.
A “family trinity” formed during Sandy’s surreptitious affairs, his trips away, and his boozy nights out with Jeremy. Soon enough, Sandy was neglecting his two kids, Emily and Matt, who are now in their twenties. (Emily is seeking spiritual enlightenment in India, and Matt is still trying to conquer his drug addiction). Sandy admits that he should have tried harder to save his marriage, and deep down he knows that its failure was more his fault than Penny’s, who has moved to France away from the familiar streets of West London.
Safely ensconced in the Dordogne, middle-aged Penny is content to work on her dollhouse project and contemplate the beauty of her garden and her lovely home. Giddy with her good fortune and far from the annual “nightmare of family life” that culminated in a calculated withdrawal from marriage and children, Penny is surprised at how much she enjoys the company of “her newly integrated self.” Apart from Nigel, the manager of the local English estate agency, Penny has little contact with the outside world.
A man with a dark sexual side and a penchant for riskily investing other people‘s money (including Sandy‘s meager savings), Jeremy views the world from a mostly selfish perspective. Finding opportunity where others may not, he’s thrilled to return each day to The Jezebel, his beloved house boat. Since the financial crash, times have been tough for Jeremy: “the loss of control, the things falling apart.” And he knows it hasn’t been easy for Sandy. For years he’s helped his best friend out, loaning money, knowing that he would never be repaid.
Sandy’s accident and the distinct possibility that his fall in front of traffic may have been a failed suicide bid provide the catalyst, thrusting Dainty’s characters into new and unsheltered territory. Jeremy can’t dispel the memory of Sandy at the hospital, looking so old and so defeated, “his eyes fogged with drugs.” On Battersea Bridge Road, the late-spring wind is eye-watering, and fear, like an animal, is cast out from the pack. Dainty brings to the forefront Sandy’s exhausting sense of betrayal and loneliness after surviving the breakdown of his marriage, the decline of his career, and his growing alienation from his children.
While Peter and Tim sometimes skirt around the edges of this thorny story, Dainty’s narrative really belongs to Sandy, Penny and Jeremy. Tim’s partner, Angie, and her implacable belief that they are “a never-ending couple” are counterbalanced by Jeremy’s estrangement from his daughter and by Sandy’s lonely, isolated penury. With Sandy’s decision to visit Will and Emily in India, the unreliable, unstable hinges of his own life become reflective of his inevitable march towards old age. Emily and Matt have long since separated from their need for either their mother and father (here Dainty cleverly inserts a series of emails between Matt and Emily showing their anger towards mom and dad).
As this is a novel of connection, progress makes its inevitable mark. From his first impulsive meeting at a suicide support group to his trip to India, Sandy takes the first tentative steps. He puts behind him the a fog of unpaid bills and occasional bailiffs, along with the notion that he has been subsisting on meager royalties from a string of “largely forgotten pop songs.” Does Sandy really imagine that he could compensate for all those absent, careless years with one budget trip paid for by his aged mother? “In the known territory of Battersea I had summoned up a cozy image of the three of us eating curry, visiting temples, and wandering through markets.”
The complex, fluid relationships between these people are the heart of After Everything, and the nuances that develop are remarkable. Especially strong is Jeremy’s unapologetic, sarcastic defense of his sexual peccadilloes. Sandy is the perfect foil to Jeremy’s selfishness, albeit one that reflects a wasted life. While Jeremy fights to hide his terrible burdens, Sandy and Penny prove that it is vital to seize those rare moments in our lives when we can enjoy that which is so wonderful and amazing around us.