Keyes is hon­est about what can hap­pen when lust and nov­elty col­lide with bore­dom and fa­mil­iar­ity

Irish Independent - Weekend Review - - FRONT PAGE - EDEL COF­FEY

Mar­ian Keyes’s 13th novel, The Break, be­gins with a com­pelling open­ing. Amy, a PR woman in her 40s, re­ceives the shock news that her hus­band, Hugh, wants a break from their mar­riage. He doesn’t want to break up, he tells her; just a break, for a de­fined pe­riod of six months, to find him­self, and maybe to sleep with other women, too, and then he’ll come home and they can pick up where they left off. Oth­er­wise known as hav­ing your cake and eat­ing it. As begin­nings go, it’s com­pelling. Hugh is rapidly dis­pensed to south­east Asia and his imag­ined fate of young, beau­ti­ful women in biki­nis, and the rest of the book fo­cuses on how Amy copes with the fall­out of his de­par­ture, and the re­al­i­sa­tion that her mar­riage was not as solid as she had thought.

The reader is on Amy’s side from the be­gin­ning, but quickly we start to won­der if Amy have to take some of the blame for Hugh’s cri­sis, which makes the book a much more in­ter­est­ing prospect.

The book makes the case for mar­riage in an age of break-ups and hook-ups. Keyes makes a con­vinc­ing ar­gu­ment for stick­ing it out, pre­sent­ing us with all of the pos­i­tive as­pects, such as durable friend­ship, un­der­stand­ing, loy­alty, com­mit­ment and get­ting each other’s in-jokes. But she is hon­est, too, about what can hap­pen when lust and nov­elty col­lide with bore­dom and fa­mil­iar­ity, and it’s not al­ways pretty.

And thus, a third strand en­ters the story, in the form of the English jour­nal­ist Josh Rowan, a hand­some, rugged north­erner with whom Amy has had an on­go­ing flir­ta­tion for the past cou­ple of years. Keyes uses this sto­ry­line as a way to ex­plore a dif­fer­ent kind of af­fair, the emo­tional one, and the dam­age it can wreak on re­la­tion­ships, even if — of­fi­cially — no­body has done any­thing wrong. It’s thought-pro­vok­ing stuff.

Keyes al­ways has an im­pres­sive cast of char­ac­ters in her nov­els, par­tic­u­larly when it comes to fam­i­lies and Amy’s mum steals the show here as she strug­gles to cope with her hus­band’s Alzheimer’s, her late-life de­sire to break free and ex­press her­self, and her ac­ci­den­tal in­ter­net fame.

Keyes uses the many re­ac­tions to Amy’s break-up to ex­am­ine mod­ern at­ti­tudes to­wards mar­riage and sex. Some of Amy’s friends make ‘go girl’ noises when they find out, and sug­gest she should take ad­van­tage of the break to play the field and get straight back in the saddle, so to speak. Keyes re­mains true to her triedand-tested style of slowly un­veil­ing her plot, and bring­ing to­gether the ‘be­fore’ and ‘af­ter’ of the story in a sat­is­fy­ing re­veal for the reader.

An­other by-now de­fin­i­tive trait of Keyes’s books is the pres­ence of se­ri­ous is­sues be­neath the hu­mour and this book is packed with them. The novel wears them lightly for the most part, from Amy’s dad’s Alzheimer’s to the char­ac­ters who shirk their parental re­spon­si­bil­i­ties.

The only sto­ry­line that feels a lit­tle forced is the one where a char­ac­ter has to travel to the UK to have an abor­tion. Con­sid­er­ing how pe­riph­eral the sto­ry­line is to the main nar­ra­tive, it feels dis­pro­por­tion­ately loaded and at times al­most di­dac­tic. A sam­ple line reads: “I mean, I know abor­tion is illegal in Ire­land but, un­til now, I’d never fully un­der­stood that I could ac­tu­ally be put in prison. Maybe that’s the only time any­one knows any­thing — when it im­pacts them di­rectly.”

It’s a per­fectly rea­son­able plot strand to in­clude in a book, es­pe­cially con­sid­er­ing how high-pro­file the cur­rent de­bate on abor­tion is, but per­haps it might have worked bet­ter had it been af­forded the same light touch that the other weighty is­sues in the book were given.

This tiny gripe aside, The Break is as en­joy­able as any clas­sic Keyes and it feels a lit­tle more grounded in or­di­nary, re­lat­able life, and a lit­tle more grown-up than her most re­cent books have done (even if things threaten to come un­done on an ill-ad­vised skite to Ser­bia).

Per­son­ally, the most en­joy­able parts of Keyes’s books are al­ways her warm, con­ver­sa­tional style and her very Ir­ish hu­mour. Keyes de­liv­ers a never-end­ing suc­ces­sion of one-liners which ex­ist purely for her read­ers’ en­ter­tain­ment, which is no bad thing. “She’s as leaky as Ju­lian As­sange,” she writes of Amy’s in­dis­creet sis­ter, be­fore mov­ing swiftly on to the next joke. De­spite the many pas­tel-hued book cov­ers, Keyes’s hu­mour is of­ten pitch-black. At one point, Amy goes search­ing for a de­pressed Hugh and, fear­ing the worst, says: “Mar­lay Park seemed like the ob­vi­ous choice — all those trees.”

The Break is a very en­joy­able read, with a strong moral heart and plenty of laughs, and it’s long enough that the reader doesn’t feel short-changed. A per­fect fire­side com­pan­ion as the evenings draw in.

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