William Nicholson's The Secret Intensity of Everyday Life came along at just the right moment for me. Although I suppose they are really very different sorts of authors, he reminds me a little of one of my favorites, Clare Chambers. Both write smart, witty prose, both are wonderful storytellers and both deal in the unpredictability of contemporary relationships. Nicholson's story revolves around the question of happiness. What happens when a reasonably happily married woman of twenty years receives a letter from her first love asking to meet up again? Has she made the right choices, and what would her life have been like in different circumstances? I realize this sounds like a tired old plotline, but Nicholson does a commendable job of breathing new life into it. The question of happiness is applied to a large cast of characters, whose lives cross and intersect and sometimes clash. One small question, the question of happiness, takes on so many different meanings.
This is more a story of ideas than actions, and events take place over the course of a mere six days in a small village in Sussex, but it's a surprisingly fast moving story with each character taking center stage in their turn--young and old alike. Laura is married to Henry and they have two children, Carrie and Jack. Laura was enamored of Nick Crocker when they met in college, maybe even more than enamored. He completed her, and she was crushed when he asked for more space and left. Carrie and Jack attend the local school along with Alice Dickinson. Alan Strachen, an aspiring playwright, is Carrie and Alice's teacher. His most recent creation has been turned down as not being suitable for a radio show, which devastates him. He's perhaps a little too wrapped up in his work as he fails to see how Alice is being bullied. A single mother, Liz Dickinson, caves in to the sexual charms of Alice's father (who she never married) even though she regrets it each and every time. When Mrs. Dickinson's (that would be Liz's mother) dog, Perry, has a run in with a local farmer, which happened to be witnessed by Jack, it's the Reverend Salmon who offers comfort and compassion. The fact that he has lost his faith doesn't seem to impair his ability to do his job one bit.
As you can see there are a number of different threads, and I think I even left a few out. Nicholson very deftly weaves the lives of so many people together showing how one simple action by one may have a calamitous effect on another. At one point Alan Strachen tells Liz Dickinson that "we're all unhappy" and his words resonate with her. They resonate with me actually. Each character is grappling with some problem, trying to find meaning in their world, happiness or contentment. Although happiness is the major theme, there are also plenty of other ideas swirling about the story. Nicholson very cleverly juxtaposes contemporary "gentrified country life" where the number of actual working farms has dwindled to the idea of Arcadia--a myth according to Nick whose research as a student was wrapped up in the idea. And there is a wonderful scene where Laura and Henry, along with Laura's sister, husband and parents spend an evening on the green watching Le nozze di Figaro, which is nicely juxtaposed with the sexual escapades in the novel as well as the reworked play Alan Strachen asks Liz to read. All through this Laura's story is told both past and present. Nicholson tells each character's story with a distinct and different voice yet works them all together to fit like interlocking pieces of a puzzle.
The novel opens and closes with Laura, who by the way works as a cataloger and has the job of going through someone's library and ascertaining its worth (moments of sheer jealousy reading about it on my end), and her search for happiness. Rather her question of whether she really is happy with her life as is, and did she make the right decision. 'What if' questions always fascinate me. If you were madly in love with someone and they came back into your life, would you return to them? Second chances! I'll leave it up to you to read the book to discover what the answer is for Laura.
I really enjoyed this and see that William Nicholson has a new book out (so far only in the UK), All the Hopeful Lovers, which were I not on a book buying ban (well, at least in terms of using the credit card) I would not hesitate to purchase right now. Instead I will watch patiently for its publication here in the US. Definitely an author to watch!