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Lexi and Jake have been in the same friendship circle for fifteen years, with the Pearsons and the Heathcotes. They’ve been pregnant at the same time and have gone through parenting, moving house, changing jobs and sharing the highs and lows of life together. Every Saturday they try to get together for takeaway and during the evening check their syndicate’s numbers on the lottery. Every week they’ve drowned their sorrows and laughed off disappointment when they didn’t win. Then one Saturday night the unthinkable happens and Lexi feels something has changed in the friendship. Words are exchanged over the lottery tradition, someone calls it ‘common’ and tempers flare. The Pearson’s and Heathcotes pull out leaving Lexi and Jake the sole members. So, what happens when those numbers come up and Lexi and Jake possess a ticket worth 18 million?
Very rarely I come across a character I really can’t stand and that was the case with Jake in this novel. At best he’s like a well meaning, but clumsy, puppy and at worst he’s crass, wasteful, impulsive and deceitful. It was a wonder that he and Lexi had made it so far in their marriage, because they seem so totally opposed to each other. It could be that’s because we see his actions through Lexi’s eyes, but I think these differences have always been there. However, their shared struggle to bring up two children, work full time and pay the bills has forced them to work together – mainly for the good of Logan and Emily. Once the money arrives all of those problems fade away, leaving them free to act based on want rather than need. Their usual power balance, in which Jake is the naughty child and Lexi is the parent, has shifted. Money has made them equally powerful and in Jake’s case all of his usual checks and balances are gone. Lexi is still cautious and sensible, it’s just that now they have money, Jake doesn’t have to be. Even if he blows a million, there are seventeen more in the bank. They make a decision to avoid publicity, in consultation with their lottery advisor, and in theory they can carry on as normal. So Lexi gets up and goes to work in her advisor role at the Citizen’s Advice Bureau.
One morning she meets Toma Albu outside the bureau, a homeless man from Eastern Europe who is barely coping since the death of his wife and child. Lexi sends him to a day centre for a shower, clean clothes and something to eat while she looks into his story. The family were renting a property from a private landlord who has neglected to do proper boiler checks. Over the course of a day, before Christmas, his wife and son succumb to the effects of carbon monoxide and are dead when he returns home. Despite being taken to court the landlord evades the charge because he has used a letting agent to maintain the property. The agent is sentenced, leaving the landlord free to rent many other properties in his portfolio. Toma needs to find lodgings and a job, and Lexi manages to organise both, but it’s not his only request. He asks if Lexi will help him look through the agents, shell companies and offshore accounts to find out the name of the landlord. Lexi is scared, if she looks for this man what will she find and what will Toma do if she tells him?
Meanwhile, in the space of a day Jake has quit his latest job, allowed the kids to stay home and bought a bright yellow Ferrari that he’s parked on the drive. If they were trying to avoid publicity, this is the worst thing to do. He might as well have put a billboard on the lawn. Over the next few days the town is buzzing with gossip about the local lottery winner. Even worse a huge crowd turns up at the CAB to beg for money and Lexi has to take a leave of absence from work. There are paparazzi outside their home and more people demanding money from them. Lexi feels overwhelmed, she’s feeling all of the consequences but none of the excitement her family are feeling as they have an internet shopping splurge. Jake doesn’t even seem to be checking price tags, unless he’s deliberately buying the most expensive things he can find. Lexi has her own shopping list but it comprises of people whose lives she could change with their win, by relieving debt, or paying for them to receive legal help. Imagine the difference just a small proportion of this money could make to each life. I’ve worked in mental health and welfare advice posts for years and I was sometimes forced to break rules to get something done. Just as Lexi describes giving away baby clothes to people I have helped with donations, or even paid for something to be done out of my own pocket if it was the barrier in a person’s life. I think I have a similar ‘rescue’ tendency to Lexi so I understood her character and motivation, more than Jake’s reckless consumerism.
When Lexi and Jake agree to accept publicity, just to help control the story, their advisor organises a press conference. This was one of the most tense scenes in the book as the Heathcotes and Pearsons arrive to stake their claim on the winnings. As an investigation ensues everyone has a different story, with very confusing motivations. This is where the novel really gripped me and I started to become suspicious of everyone’s story – why does Jennifer suddenly claim she went to the toilet at the crucial moment so the others might have left the syndicate without her knowing? Cleverly, over the rest of the novel, Adele Parks has us always referring back to these accounts as new revelations leave the reader questioning what they believed so far. However, due to my own bias there were people whose account I never questioned. Parks though keeps us twisting and turning, even when you think everything is settled the last pages hold their own surprises. This is the dark side of winning such a life changing amount of money. It makes people behave very differently towards you and leaves you vulnerable to blackmail, begging, and desperate people who don’t mind who they hurt to get what they want. I felt so bad for Emily whose first love goes completely wrong in the aftermath; I think she loses just as much as the adults, if not more. The old adage that when something goes wrong you know who your friends are is very apt here. In fact it goes to show that it’s not just when life goes wrong. Any change, even a seemingly positive one, can cause stress and even depression; a wedding sits as high on the stress index, as being fired or suffering significant illness or injury.
As soon as Lexi starts to help Toma early in the book, I could see they had an affinity and I hoped they might become closer with time. I thought he made Lexi feel safe and able to be vulnerable; there is no need to parent him like she does with Jake. Toma has been through the worst experience Lexi can imagine, yet with a small amount of help he has started rebuilding his life. They agree on the amount of good her lottery win could do and it’s great for her to have someone thinking on her wavelength. Her need for his reassurance is so strong that she makes choices to be with him one important evening, rather than with her family. She finds she feels more at home with his friends who talk about books or films they’ve seen, and are from many different parts of the world. It surprises Lexi how much she’s changed, but I wondered how long she’d been out of touch with her own feelings.
Parks is very adept at using multiple narrative voices, in short chapters, that rush you towards a conclusion. There are twists and turns in the final chapters that I had no idea were coming. It sheds light, and even doubt, on other character’s motivations. Due to our own experience and biases there are always characters we take to or strongly dislike in a book, when an author makes me question those assumptions I really enjoy the challenge. It makes the book stay with you. It’s sparked discussion in our house over what we would do, who would be in charge of the funds and who’s life we could change. This is an excellent read, with believable characters in a position we’ve probably all imagined ourselves in at some point. However, it makes us think twice about the reality of it and whether we really would want to be a lottery millionaires.