Lightness in a time of plague

Review: Vivien Horler

Grown Ups, by Marian Keyes (Michael Joseph/ Penguin)

Marian Keyes is an acclaimed Irish novelist who bridles at the use of the term “chick lit” on the grounds that it is perjorative to both women writers and the books many women adore.

But the truth is that while exploring major human themes of betrayal and jealousy and love and reconciliation, her novels are somewhat light. They’re also charming and often funny, but you wouldn’t call them searing or particularly deep.

There is of course nothing wrong with this. There are times when one wants deep and searing, and times when one doesn’t. Summer holidays beside the pool are perfect times to read Marian Keyes.

And for many, a period of staying home in Covid-19 lockdown, when there is so little else to do, might also be a perfect time to read Marian Keyes. On the whole her books are cheerful, often uplifting, and have largely happy endings.

But for me – and this clearly is not Keyes’s fault – Grown Ups jarred with the seriousness of what the world is going through right now. Her characters call each other “eejits” and spend a fair bit of time in bars, pubs and restaurants. Their preoccupations, their suspicions and jealousies, seem irrelevant to the world in April 2020.

I realise this is entirely unfair to the novel and to Keyes herself. And my feelings might also stem partly from the fact that I read Grown Ups after something like three weeks immersed in the searing and fairly deep plots and conspiracies of Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies and The Mirror & the Light.

But Keyes isn’t Mantel, twice winner of the Man Booker Prize for her Tudor novels, and I would imagine doesn’t aspire to be. (Well okay, I’m sure every novelist in English would aspire to the Man Booker Prize, but that’s another topic.)

I think perhaps I chose Grown Ups after the Wolf Hall novels because I thought something light would be a pleasant contrast, and it was, up to a point.

So, right, to be fair. Grown Ups certainly has its share of drama. The novel – 630 pages of it – begins with a family dinner for Johnny’s 49th birthday. Johnny is one of three brothers, and he and his wife Jessie have got together with his brothers, Ed and Liam, their wives and respective children, for a family celebration.

It turns out Ed’s wife, Cara, banged her head badly earlier in the day, and is probably suffering from concussion. This may be what makes her, a usually tactful woman popular with her in-laws, blurt out a series of home truths that threaten to tear the family apart.

We then go back six months to another function – an Easter weekend for the whole family funded by Jessie and Johnny at a fancy hotel. We learn that they run a successful foodie business, but are spending well beyond their means.

Cara knows this because she does John and Jessie’s books, a situation she finds embarrassing because she is learning altogether too much about their private affairs.

We also discover Cara has an eating disorder, binge eating sweets and chocolates and then throwing up.

The third brother, Liam, is famous for having been a beautiful and moderately successful athlete, and expects things always to work out well for him. His second wife, Nell, is a set designer struggling to launch her career, who feels she doesn’t get the support she expects from her husband.

Family events follow, with dinners, a first communion, a week in Tuscany and other jollifications, in which the cracks in the protagonists’ lives and relationships are papered over by politeness and affection.

And all the time Johnny’s 49th birthday is drawing closer.

Grown Ups is a fun read, just not the right read for me at this juncture.

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