In her third novel, Ordinary People, British novelist Diana Evans pays an extended visit to the country of midlife relationships and proves to be a knowledgeable anthropologist in her perceptive study of four of its inhabitants.
Set in and around London in the period between Barack Obama’s first election and the death of Michael Jackson some eight months later, Ordinary People (named for a John Legend song) follows the lives of two couples—Melissa and Michael, Stephanie and Damian—as they navigate the tightrope of children, work and the infinitely complex task of engaging with each other as romantic partners. Together for 13 years, though unmarried, Melissa and Michael have just purchased a home at the ironically named 13 Paradise Row in South London, where they live with their daughter and newborn son. Stephanie, Damian and their three children live in a small town in Surrey.
Whether it’s Melissa’s fretfulness over the challenges of new motherhood and her shift from full-time employment with a fashion magazine to freelancing, or Damian’s thwarted dreams of a writing career and his unacknowledged depression after the death of his political activist father, Evans expertly pokes at the tender spots in relationships and examines how partners can behave in ways that, over time, make them strangers to each other. Both couples are at the stage when the initial bloom of lust has long ago faded, but there’s yet sufficient memory of it to make dissatisfaction an unwelcome visitor in every encounter, leaving Damian with a “sense that his life was wrong” and Michael feeling like “he and Melissa were nothing more than flatmates.”
Through all this, Evans is no purveyor of false optimism about the prospects of success for these troubled pairings. Instead, we’re left to ponder and admire the qualities that enable any long-term union to thrive.