A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
First off, I should say there’s a slim chance that I can give you an accurate flavour of this novel. The plot, the writing style, the characterisation, have to be experienced firsthand. Whatever I say now will be a poor substitute, because in this book there is some exceptional, dare I say, magical writing.
Laura Dave wrote London is the Best City in America (published in 2006), which I adored. It was an intense, wise novel that has stayed with me vividly. Needless to say, when her second novel, The Divorce Party, was published this May, I intended to savour every moment of it.
The Divorce Party is told from the viewpoints of two women: commitment-phobe Maggie, just engaged to Nate, and Nate’s mother, Gwyn, who is about to mark the end of her marriage with a hippyish, spread-the-love-type divorce party. Alas, it turns out that unconditional love is actually rather thin on the ground at Gwyn’s party.
Nate hasn’t told Maggie much about his upbringing, and after eighteen months of a happy relationship, Maggie is about to meet Nate’s family for the first time – perhaps strange considering Nate’s folks are only a few hours up the road in Montauk.
At the start of the novel Maggie is tidying their apartment in a fit of sleeplessness, nervous about meeting her future inlaws later that day. She happens across some envelopes addressed to a person named Champ Nathaniel. Maggie has no idea who ‘Champ’ is, but she sees that the letters are from a bank – it just so happens that their apartment is inundated with letters from banks in town, as they have loans aplenty for the Brooklyn restaurant they’re about to open. When Nate admits that his birth name is Champ and that his parents are half-billionaires, Maggie understandably feels that he has kept her in the dark and made a fool of her.
Nate tries to explain his parents’ finances to Maggie, presumably hoping that she’ll think it’s not that big a deal:
“People with a lot of…They are the opposite of people with some. They do the opposite of showing it. My mom doesn’t even have an engagement ring, just her wedding band. They drive fifteen-year-old cars.”
“And they have divorce parties.”
“The divorce party didn’t bother you when you didn’t know about the money.”
“Because I thought it was something I just didn’t know about yet. But now it’s starting to feel like something I don’t want to know about. Like debutante balls…or…I don’t know…boarding schools in Switzerland for advanced six-year-olds.”
Maggie is understandably furious. Nevertheless, a few hours later, in a fog of angry silence, Maggie accompanies Nate onto the Hampton Jitney and they travel to Montauk where Maggie will have to confront all the pieces of Nate’s life that he’s hidden from her. When Maggie arrives at Nate’s childhood home, she discovers that in terms of Nate’s omissions, the money is the least of it.
Maggie is working-class and Nate is from a super-privileged background, but this is no Cinderella story. Nate is the one who has to do the impressing, the one who has something to prove. In this case he has to prove that his lies and omissions are not relationship-breakers. He has to prove that the reason he has neglected to tell Maggie about his past is because to him it’s entirely unrelated to his present. He turned his back on his mistakes and the money a long time ago and he is trying to pay his own way, hence the multiple loans and the many jobs he worked to put himself through college. However, Maggie trusting Nate after the wool has been pulled so tightly over her eyes, seems unlikely.
Gwyn is in a different kind of spin. Her previously non-religious husband has apparently ‘found Buddhism’ and sadly Gwyn does not fit into his new spiritualism. Gwyn has spent her life defining herself as a wife and mother, and now she finds herself on the brink of a heart-breaking divorce, with a son who’s been lying through his teeth to his fiancée and a daughter who’s pregnant by a flighty musician that she’s only just met.
The novel looks at the deception woven into love, and how untruthfulness in the cause of sparing feelings can be far more devastating than simple truth, no matter how hard that truth is to first hear. It also asks the question of how much altruism comes into the ‘protecting someone else’s feelings’ equation, or whether the motivation for deceptive behaviour is largely about avoiding confrontation and protecting oneself from upset. Maggie and Gwyn are at different ends of married life and both of them are forced to ask if it is ever possible to really know someone, because loving someone wholeheartedly does not guarantee you their honesty.
Laura Dave’s prose is simple, elegant and beautiful. Both her novels have had a Great Gatsby quality to them, perhaps heightened in this case by the Long Island setting (Montauk is now absolutely on my list of places to see). The drama takes place over one weekend, as was the case with London…, and there’s something about this device that ratchets up the tension. The characters feel real and there is no discernible use of cliché. Both of Dave’s novels have been a joy to read, and as with her first, I could hardly put this book down. It comes as no surprise to me that the film rights have been bought by Jennifer Aniston’s production company.
If you’re looking for a delightfully written page-turner set in a beautiful location, this one might be for you.
Viking Books. ISBN-13: 978-0670018598. 256 pages. £12.70 Hardback.