Book review: Adventures in Modern Marriage, by William Nicholson

William Nicholson finds infidelity, hypocrisy and disappointment lurking beneath the veneer of respectable middle-class life

William Nicholson

William Nicholson is a master of the ordinary. This used to be more usual than it is now; one thinks of novelists such as Galsworthy, Cronin, Francis Brett Young and, more recently, William Cooper. But in general today the domestic novel which mirrors or shadows everyday middle-class life has become a female province. Nicholson, however, invades and occupies it, successfully.

His characters are unremarkable, mostly middle-aged, with, in the men’s case, careers which are less than they used to be. Their wives or partners have returned to work, quite successfully. The children have mostly flown the coop. If they haven’t, they are worryingly dependent.

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They mostly live in Sussex, within easy reach of London, and work in the media. The novel is set in the week of the 2015 general election, and they mostly look forward to a change of government. (When the Tories win, a screenwriter’s agent, though naturally Labour, is quite relieved because she won’t have to pay the threatened mansion tax.) They are not free of hypocrisy, yet are all essentially decent and well-intentioned.

There is a disturbing question: have we had all life is going to offer? Henry Broad, at 60, is pushed off a TV series he has devised. Is he on the slide? Henry worries about sex. They all do. There is a lot of talking and thinking about sex in the novel, though Nicholson spares us the sort of scenes that might invite a nomination for The Literary Review’s Bad Sex Prize. But sex is in all their minds; there are spots of adultery, inviting the question: can a happy relationship survive infidelity? Might it indeed even be enriched by new and wider experience?

Meanwhile, Liz is waiting for the mother she never found easy to die, a mother whose own life closed up, embittered when her husband left her decades ago. Liz is a journalist, just commissioned by The Daily Telegraph to write a feature piece on women and sex. Are they just as keen on sex as men are? Her research in a supermarket car park and at her Pilates group leads to an emphatic answer. The knowledge doesn’t necessarily make a partner’s infidelity less painful or disturbing. You may think there is too much talk of sex in the novel to be credible or convincing, but the implication is that there may be a lot more of it in your head than you are willing to admit.

The novel is written in the present tense. This is frequently tiresome or irritating, but it works well here. For one thing, there is little in the way of plot. You don’t read Nicholson eager to find out what happens next. Actually, you can usually see what’s coming before it arrives. This doesn’t matter. Plots, however gripping or well-devised, impose an unreal shape on experience which is more often random. Nicholson is concerned to be true to life in all its vagaries. He doesn’t, of course, dispense with chance or coincidence, these being useful means of upsetting a comfortable apple-cart, a means of bringing a character by, for example, an unexpected encounter with his first love, to feel an itch of dissatisfaction with even the most apparently contented of lives.

Dissatisfaction and disappointment are two of the novel’s themes. One wouldn’t say Nicholson’s characters are experiencing anything as banal as a mid-life crisis, but the question “is this all life was meant to be?” throbs through the novel. Horizons shorten, but shouldn’t life have something, not necessarily more, but different to offer before darkness sets in?

Anthony Trollope. the master of the novel of the everyday, gave perhaps his greatest novel the title The Way We Live Now. That is Nicholson’s subject too, and he has so thoroughly and credibly imagined his characters, their families, homes, careers, hopes, fears and lingering ambitions that he gives us an illuminating and penetrating picture of one part of modern English life in one section of society. You may object that it’s a partial picture, and one of a small, privileged and, for all their doubts, hesitations and anxieties, unrepresentative section. But so what? Even the middle-classes have the right to live and be made the subject of novels, and Nicholson is a masterly writer, this a thoroughly engaging novel.

*Adventures in Modern Marriage by William Nicholson, Quercus, 423pp, £19.99