The Dilemma is one of those novels that’s so difficult to review, because I’m constantly trying to work out how much to reveal. If I reveal this thing will it ruin the whole book? If I reveal that, do I have to signal it with a spoiler alert? So, here goes.
The novel revolves around a couple, Livia and Adam, and the 24 hours of her 40th birthday. Livia and Adam married young when she was pregnant with their son. Her parents severe disapproval coloured all her choices on that occasion, even down to the yellow dress she wore. Livia has a lifetime of regret for not celebrating her marriage more. So, little by little, over the years she has squirrelled away money for a 40th birthday party that makes up for the wedding she missed. She wants her special day. The events of the novel all take place around the preparation for the party. Adam has a present to pick up and caterers to supervise. Their son Josh and his friend, Max, have to decorate the garden with lights and balloons. Livia is whisked away by her best friends Kirin and Jess to a spa day.
Of course, as always with these seemingly idyllic units of friends and family, there are secrets. Some of them are benign whereas others are huge omissions that could blow this whole family apart. Adam is keeping a secret from everyone. A few days before the party he has organised for their daughter Marnie to fly in as a birthday surprise. Marnie has been studying in Hong Kong and originally couldn’t make it. However, she has checked on non-direct flights and could travel via Cairo and Amsterdam. Adam hasn’t wanted to pay out for a direct flight because he doesn’t want to be accused of spoiling her. Josh is flying to America to take up an internship and Adam insisted he take the cheapest route. Adam wraps a really large box to hide Marnie till it’s time for Liv to open her presents. Now he’s just waiting for her to arrive.
Livia has no idea that Marnie is coming and at one point actively thinks she might be glad she’s not coming. The problem is that Livia knows something about Marnie that she hasn’t shared with Adam. Before leaving for Hong Kong, Marnie had a miscarriage. She didn’t want to share who the father was, but Liv has noticed a pattern. Josh’s friend Max was going to go out to Hong Kong and visit her, but Marnie called her Mum to ask for help in dissuading him. Since then, Liv has suspected Max and has struggled to act normally with him around. Then something happens and Liv’s whole world turns upside down. She daren’t tell Adam or Josh. This secret will blow their friendship circle wide open. If Adam finds out this secret has been kept from him, he will never forgive her.
By the start of the party, both of them are in a state of anxiety. However, Adam looks dreadful and is telling everyone he has a migraine. Family and friends keep taking him to one side but he’s sticking to his story. Josh thinks its because something went wrong with Livia’s gift. Liv keeps wondering if he has stumbled upon her secret. Yet it’s much worse than that. Earlier that day, Adam has received terrible news that will change them all forever. But he’s clinging to hope. He hopes he’s wrong. He hopes they will remember this celebration for the right reasons. He hopes, that when she finds out, Liv will find it in her heart forgive him.
This book had me on tenterhooks from the beginning. I read it in two bursts, not able to put it down until I’d found out who had done what to who. Each section of the novel is from a different viewpoint, but mainly Liv and Adam. They are a lovely couple and despite parental opposition they battled through the difficult early years and are now at a comfortable point in their relationship. They’ve had their children early and are now free to enjoy each other. Adam has grown up a lot since their early years where he would disappear if things get difficult. How will things change if either of their secrets get out? What will happen as the news ripples out to family and their very close knit circle of friends.
I felt closer to Adam’s character and his dilemma, than Liv’s. I felt confused by her character’s need for the big party for her 40th. I understood the disappointment of not having the wedding you want, but it seemed to take up so much of her headspace. It seems to be about giving herself the approval and value that was lacking from her parents. I would have thought that she would want a vow renewal and make the party about both of them, not just her. A couple of times she mentally notes that her cream party dress could be a wedding dress. I like the way they accept each other’s needs and dreams. He supports her wholeheartedly in the party she wants. She has remembered he always wanted to visit a bridge in France, and organises a trip as a thank you for the party.
Although the subject matter and time scale seem slight, the author has used the special occasion to examine the relationships between all involved. The party has been such a huge part of their lives it gives the author scope to examine the motivations, mistakes and intentions of even the smaller characters like their friends. It made me realise that in long term relationships we become so enmeshed that no one can leave without uprooting the whole group. The author is a master at creating tension between these characters and in the reader. I was reading an ebook so I did my usual trick of rushing madly towards the end. I then felt so disappointed when it did end, because it was far too soon.