This was a book of two halves for me, until the very end when I became totally engaged in both stories. Poppy is our first narrator and she has an incredibly busy life. Once an aspiring actress, Poppy now runs an agency for extras while managing a busy home. Her husband Stuart has a time consuming career as a dentist, and they have two daughters, Melissa and Daisy. Both acknowledge that they couldn’t manage without the help they get from Stuart’s mum Betty who lives with them all and, between meditation and art classes, spends a lot of time with the girls. Poppy goes to an agency party and runs into old flame Matthew, who was her lover at drama school. Their relationship ended badly when Matthew started seeing another girl in their year, Sandra. Surely, by now though, they can have a civilised conversation at a party and just catch up like two old friends?
The story is told in alternate chapters starting with Poppy, then going back to the late 1960s/early 1970s with Betty, her mother-in-law. At first I felt more drawn in by Betty’s narrative. We travel back to her teenage years when she met Stuart’s father Jock. Poppy has always thought that Betty and Jock were a lovely welcoming couple. Stuart took her back home when they first starting dating at University. We learn that Betty was in love with Jock, and was so happy when he asked her to marry him. Her dad insists on a two year engagement and Jock agrees to wait. However, once the marriage comes closer, he starts to make demands that change Betty’s life. She loves her work in the department store and often models hats for them, as well as enjoying a social life with the other girls. Jock decides that he doesn’t want her to carry on working after they’re married. He insists she doesn’t need to, she’ll have enough to do keeping the flat clean and besides, he doesn’t want people to think he can’t afford to keep his wife. Betty loves her work, but knows how much Jock wants to get on at work and impress the bosses, so she gives up work. This is just the beginning.
I struggle with Poppy’s narrative at first because she seems to act without really thinking through her actions. It’s clear that both she and Stuart work very long hours, even into the evening. It means they are more like flat mates than lovers, but she hasn’t dared to discuss this with him. Without Betty’s help, they would not be able to work the way they do, and their daughters are losing out on quality time with both of them. Melissa, their eldest daughter, is more likely to talk to Betty than her Mum. Back home, her Dad lives alone and is experiencing dementia symptoms. He has a friend a few houses away who checks on him, but there have been times lately when she’s had to drop everything and rush over there. She has enough problems already, but then as soon as she meets Matthew she makes life even more complicated. In order to get over the embarrassment of seeing him, she has slightly too much to drink. The drink and a sudden snowfall, mean she ends up having to book a room at the hotel for the night. This means she can stay up late and drink even more. Matthew tells her that he married Sandra, but she was diagnosed with MS several years ago and he is now her carer. He makes it clear he finds Poppy attractive, but she resists his advances. She is flattered though, and with her own relationship under strain, will she succumb to his persuasion?
Slowly, we start to see parallels between Betty and Poppy’s stories. As Jock became more controlling and abusive, Betty started a friendship that lead to her own temptation. We realise that she knows more about her son and Poppy than either of them realise. She is watching them grow apart and desperately wants them to fix it. She spent a long time in a loveless relationship, and wants better for them. We learn that Betty longed for a daughter, but that was impossible. When Stuart brought Poppy home she saw a chance to have that mother-daughter relationship she’d always wanted. She recognised that Stuart loved this girl, but also that he probably wasn’t her first choice. Betty suspected that Poppy had been in love and hurt very badly, so felt a kinship with her. She makes a really wise observation that it takes a long time to fully understand relationships, but when we do, we’re so old that the next generation isn’t listening to us. We become irrelevant. So we’re doomed to see the next generation repeat our mistakes. Betty isn’t going to let that happen.
I liked the way the author ramps up the tension as the novel continues, and it was the need to know what happened next that kept me reading. I knew something terrible was going to happen, and as soon as I saw the new chapter based in a courtroom I was hooked. I wanted to know who ends up in court and what they’d done. I thought all along it was one character, but it was someone else. There are a series of further reveals, around each character. Matthew is lying and manipulating all the way along and I didn’t see full extent of his deception coming. Stuart seems very secretive and it takes till the very end for Poppy to understand why her marriage has been struggling for so long. Betty’s story was heartbreaking though, and I really identified with her terrible situation. My mum and I often have conversations about how different life was for women of her generation, and how much more difficult it was to escape abusive relationships. Women didn’t have the financial independence, plus there were societal pressures. Psychological abuse wasn’t recognised and coercive control has only been recognised in law for about eight years. Pressure to stay in a marriage often came from the woman’s own family, just as Betty’s mother advises. It’s only when Jock goes too far that Betty’s mum actually intervenes and gives advice and support.
My heart went out to Betty, especially knowing how haunted she was by her own mistakes. It’s these mistakes that help her understand Poppy and want to help her, but does that help go too far? I liked that in Poppy’s narrative, Betty seems like a helpful and caring grandma who loves crafts and spending time with her granddaughters. It shows how we often see those older than us in one dimension, when there is so much more beneath the surface. I think the depiction of modern family life is quite accurate, in that it can sometimes take drastic events before we realise we’ve been taking our partners for granted. Poppy also realises that she’s missed out on so much of her daughter’s childhood and she only knows about Melissa’s crush on a boy at school through Betty. The author highlights the terrible modern dilemma of those of us in the middle – people who have children still living at home and also caring responsibilities for ailing parents. Poppy, and her husband, are proof that it’s impossible to have it all and perhaps a literary lesson on needing some balance in our lives.