A middle-aged woman narrates this deeply reflective novel as she lies in bed by her husband one stormy night, restlessly writing a eulogy to her two teenage children about her life and her marriage. It's almost midsummer 1995, and it's a week past Kate and Nick's sixteenth birthday. There's a secret about her family that Paula Hook is propelled to address, and the next morning, her husband, Mike, will also reveal to Nick and Kate his own version of the dramatic denouement that is the climax to their lives so far.
Paula's story begins in 1966, when as a twenty-year-old she meets charming, handsome Michael while studying at Sussex University near Brighton. On the cusp of the sexual revolution, college life has become rife with possibilities.
The birth control pill has just become available to young women and Brighton is considered to be the best, the coolest, and perhaps the most hip place to be.
The choices that are available to a girl like Paula would have been incomprehensible to her parents even ten years previously, and the excitement of the new, "the liberated as we sometimes called it," especially attracts Mike. Mike sleeps around, sleeping with two her friends in possibly quick succession, then eventually hooking up with Paula. He gets into bed with Paula one night in Brighton nearly thirty years
earlier and, though "the place, the room, and even the bed have changed," Mike has managed to stay with her ever since.
Mike's father sends his son twelve bottles of champagne to celebrate their love, the sudden bounty coming to symbolize, in a decidedly impetuous and breathless way, the couple's eventual betrothal, even though they don't actually get married for another four years. Of course, being children of the freewheeling
'60s, both Mike and Paula are obliged to scoff at the very idea of marriage.
Paula begins to reveal ever more about her life with Mike as she thinks back to those early days in the
Seventies when Mike began his research on snails, a supposed stepping stone to his brilliant future in science, and when she began a career as a trainee art dealer at Christie's auction house.
Their life together was certainly positive and upwardly mobile, that of a steadily married couple in their thirties living in
a terraced house in the picaresque London suburb of Herne Hill.
Bounded at night by her recollections in this darkened bedroom, the rain smattering away outside, this world for Paula feels like some sort of temporary refuge. She tells her children of life and how short it is, that they should "seize it, treasure it and cradle it," and also of Mike's father, who was forced to fly off to his highly possible death in the
Second World War, even as Paula's own father cracked codes in the cozy depths of the English countryside surrounded
by female clerks, one of whom was Paula's mother.
Paula and Mike discover they are cat people when they adopt a cat called Otis, even when he ends up turning their lives upside down in surprising ways. Then along come the announcements and the reckonings and the understandings about death, especially that of Grandpa Pete, when Paula cries her heart out at his funeral at Invercullen in Scotland, and also of dear Uncle Edie, who died when his was only fifty-seven and who gifted Mike a beautiful, leather-bound Victorian book on mollusks.
Thematically the novel makes a powerful statement. Embedded within the narrative is a plea to live one's life to the fullest, no matter how quick and rushing life may sometimes seem. Ultimately, Paula's message to her children is one of love and also of forgiveness. Over the years, Paula and Mike have learned how hard it can be to tell what's true and what's false, what's real and what's pretend, as they try to approach the critical question of how to tell their children about this profound decision which ended up altering their lives.
In languid and measured prose, author Graham Swift characterizes a loving, deeply intuitive marriage over the course of thirty years, ultimately infusing his tale with a worldly melancholy,
albeit one that is also permeated with immense beauty, as well as the possibilities of great happiness. Paula's revelation comes about three-quarters into the story, which causes the rest of the novel to become a bit tedious, but Swift's leisurely and competent style, and his astute observations about the nature of life and love, keep the action moving along at a brisk enough pace.