Ordinary People, Extraordinarily Negative: Diana Evans’ Bleak Marital Meditation
Before I sat down to write this review, I wondered if it might make sense to give Ordinary People to someone in a committed or long-term relationship, to get their perspective on the novel and its respective truths and falsehoods before I dove into my own analysis. It only took me a few moments to decide that lending this book to anyone in a relationship would be, for lack of a better word, weird. Dark, even. Over the course of three hundred and twenty-nine pages (this was very much an ‘are we there yet?’ read for me), Evans delivers the bleakest meditation on marriage and commitment I’ve ever come across. I’m not sure if it’s because I read it on the heels of Everything I Know About Love [more here], a sad and moving, but ultimately hopeful take; a book that declares, as Richard Curtis might put it, that love actually is all around us. Evans skewers this notion. Marriage? Horrific. Partnerships? Trying. Friendship? Betrayal looms. Without further ado, an optimist’s view of a pessimist’s literary take on the mundanities and strains of modern love.
Ordinary People opens with promise. We’re at a swinging party in London, celebrating Obama’s recent, historic election across the pond (a wistful #tbt as I first cracked open this book on an Amtrak out of the nation’s capital, having just closed Twitter on a video of Trump greeting reporters with “no collusion, no collusion” in lieu of a simple hello). The party takes place at the home of the Wiley brothers, two men introduced in great detail and then, bizarrely, not brought back into the folds of the plot until the second-to-last page of the book. They seemed fun. Would’ve liked to see a little more Wiley action. Michael and Melissa are driving in silence across the river from their home by Crystal Palace. Damian, Michael’s vague acquaintance, and Stephanie, his nagging wife, are also in attendance.
Both couples, on the way to the party, can’t think of anything to talk about apart from their children. They can’t seem to think about anything apart from blaming each other for their unhappiness. Melissa seems to hate Michael, who loves Melissa, but can’t get close to her. Damian hates Stephanie, who smothers him in the wake of his father’s death. Neither couple deals with legitimate issues outside the romantic apart from Melissa, who loses her job – though this plot point is ultimately minor – and is convinced her daughter is being haunted by the ghost of the girl who previously occupied her bedroom.
I’m not romantic or emotional in any sense of the word, and marriage isn’t interesting to me in the way it is to many of my peers, so I was surprised at how difficult I found it to relate to any of the characters in the book. I couldn’t figure out why, until I realized that with Evans’ female characters, what we saw was what we got, from page one onwards. They didn’t develop, they didn’t become more likeable – they simply got angrier as the men tried harder and continued to fail in their eyes, and thus, became more sympathetic in mine. I’m sure this is what Evans – who I should not hesitate to clarify, is an extraordinarily skilled writer – intended, but it ultimately felt like I was listening to an eloquent friend complain about a problem I wasn’t entirely interested in in the first place, for three hours straight. Beautiful writing, but didn’t love what lay beneath.