Blinded by the sun as they walked slowly back to the car, they leaned towards each other. They felt wrong together, mismatched, a mistake taken too far. But from a short distance they looked like many couples did to outsiders – exclusive, close. From a greater distance, they looked like a single person.
Jack and Milly’s marriage is like the weather, with sun either too fierce or blocked by clouds. They inhabit a climate with myriad variations of hot and cold, seeming different from the inside than from outside, from morning or evening, when filtered through a prism of the promise of happiness or resignation to “for better or worse”.
While provoking such questions in my mind, Wait For Me, Jack doesn’t read as a cerebral novel, but one firmly rooted in the quirks and flaws of a specific couple and their family across over sixty years. Breadwinner Jack never abandons his ambition to write a bestselling novel, but eventually even the small publishing house he’s established folds because “he’d simply misjudged too many writers, and overestimated the reading public’s good taste” (p47). Through his drinking and affairs and exasperation with Milly, love and lust repeatedly return. Homemaker Milly faces increasing disability following a car accident in her forties, and both resents and accepts her role as the one who holds it all together, rejecting her daughter’s feminism (p129-130):
If a woman agrees to a certain role, then she is not being exploited. The plain facts were: a single woman was the bane of society; a barren woman would go to her grave wishing she’d had kids. And a married woman had to be…be less than a man was, outwardly anyway. Less wealthy, less confident, less ambitious. Preferably less old, less tall. It was not fair, obviously but it was no good pretending otherwise.
But Milly is no earth mother. Even though she takes in both her own sister’s teenage boys and comes to love Jack’s son with another woman, and she never neglects them, she doesn’t seem to relish the child-rearing role. In fact, one of the joys of this anti-romance is that both she and Jack, within the constraints of their characters and situations, are constantly evolving and surprising the reader. The author seems to be reminding us that even the most ordinary lives are complicated, ephemeral, something we might never master until it’s time to leave.
If that sounds depressing, it’s not. The voice cackles with humour, even through some of the most poignant moments, such as when Milly is suffering from dementia, a quote that chimes with one of Norah Colvin’s recent posts (p13):
Names felt like random odd socks to Milly. She knew they each belonged to one particular other, but she was in a hurry, darn it. She grabbed the name that came to her easiest, and sometimes that happened to be the name of a child or a dead dog.
This, along with the author’s evident compassion for her characters, makes this, for a reader like me who dislikes the denial of darkness, a particularly life-affirming heart-warming novel I’m happy to recommend.
Like another highly readable novel featuring the relationship between a man and woman across a similar time period, The Rocks by Peter Nichols, apart from the opening scene of their meeting, it’s told backwards. Key events are foreshadowed through memories and anniversaries, although there are plenty of surprises on our journey back through time. I wish I could say something profound about why it works, but all I can say is that it does!
If you like the sound of this you might also like to check a couple of my other reviews of novels about marriage (Conrad and Eleanor; The Course of Love). You can also compare my verdict with other stops on the blog tour. Thanks to Sandstone press for my review copy.