In this novel, Deborah Moggach brings a unique perspective to the experience of being in the ‘middle’ of life. Robert and Phoebe are juggling work, relationships, children and an ailing father who needs full time care since the death of their mother, Anna. Thankfully, Mandy the carer, comes into their lives and seems like the answer to their prayers. They hire her on the spot and she moves into the sibling’s childhood home, leaving Phoebe and Robert to get on with their own lives. Robert lives in London, with his wife Farida who is a famous breakfast newsreader. He spends his time in their garden shed writing a novel about rural Wales where they spent some of the happiest times of their childhood. Phoebe still lives in Wales and paints hares and badgers to sell in the local tourist shops. She’s unmarried, but is having secret trysts with an ageing hippy who looks like Iggy Pop. Their parents, James and Anna had a long, happy marriage signified by the love seat in the back garden. Their two children feel their own relationships suffer by comparison. James was a science professor, a very intelligent man who is given to reciting poetry. Robert feels inferior by comparison and Phoebe wonders whether there is any point to her art, or whether she’s just painting what sells. Meanwhile, James and Mandy seem to be getting on famously, often popping for days out together, usually to the garden centre which they both love.
Phoebe and Robert go back to their daily lives and visit James and Mandy at weekends. They’re both surprised at how well the pair are getting on. Mandy wears very odd clothing combinations, and expresses views about immigrants that James would usually find objectionable. Phoebe notices the pet names and in-jokes, whereas Robert notices that Mandy has been upstairs in their Dad’s room. When he investigates further, he finds that James’s papers and photos are spread out on the floor. Robert has always felt a distance between him and his father, remembering times when he wasn’t present for sports days. Phoebe remembers that he always seemed to be away at conferences. They’ve never been particularly close with each other, but their father’s relationship with Mandy brings them together. They’re suspicious, but wonder if it’s simply jealousy over Mandy’s seemingly easy relationship with him. At lunch one Sunday, when all four are together, Mandy mentions a visit to the solicitor and their suspicions deepen. Why didn’t they check her references properly? They know the answer. They were desperate and she seemed like a godsend. Now they are terrified that they’ve invited a cuckoo into the nest. What if Mandy coerces elderly people into giving her their money?
I expected the novel to follow the mystery set up in the first half, but then the author took the story in a completely different direction. I love being wrong footed like this by a book, and the story really takes off from here. The story becomes one of two marriages, with all their complications, peaks and troughs. Every single character is so believable and has a rich inner life that draws you in. Through these flawed and complicated characters the author gives real insight into the state of marriage and how the behaviour of parents impacts on their children. Mandy is particularly memorable with her odd dress sense, politically incorrect opinions and love of biscuits. The book is written with such a lightness of touch and is incredibly easy to read.. I loved how the book ended with yet another twist to the tale I didn’t expect. However, there is finally some resolution for the characters who find a state of peace and acceptance. As a therapist, the place we leave Robert and Phoebe feels like the aftermath of therapy, where the hard work is done and the client has reached a new understanding of themselves. The author brings them through a life-changing ordeal, but somehow we leave them in a happier place than they were before. This is a meaningful, insightful, and often comical novel, but with all the addictive twists and turns of a thriller