Tuesday, August 6, 2013

My Husband Next Door - Catherine Alliott

I hadn't read any of Catherine Alliott's novels before so when I saw a copy of My Husband Next Door on NetGalley, I thought I would give it a go. The cover of this book is very chick lit, maybe with an older heroine in the vein of Katie Fforde. It looked like the humorous story of a woman whose husband is now living next door through some silly misunderstanding & the book would be about them overcoming their problems with humour & lots of pratfalls & comic misunderstandings, set in a tranquil English village. There's certainly humour in this book & it is set in a village but My Husband Next Door has a much harder edge than the average chick lit romance.

Ella met Sebastian Montclair when she was an art student living away from home for the first time. He was older, charismatic & already on his way to becoming one of the outstanding artists of his generation. They fall in love & marry when Ella becomes pregnant. Ella's mother & sister, Ginnie, are disapproving, her father is easier to persuade as he just wants her to be happy. Life is wonderful. Two children are born; Sebastian's career is booming & Ella combines her art with her family & a social life attending glamorous gallery openings & parties.

The good life doesn't last. Sebastian loses confidence in his talent & the pressure to keep painting & exhibiting leads to artist's block & drinking. The money dries up & they leave London for a farmhouse in the country owned by Sebastian's aunt, Ottoline. Ottoline sells them the farm & assorted outbuildings, one of which she continues living in. Sebastian turns the old Granary into a studio & eventually moves in there entirely as he & Ella become estranged. Their children, Josh & Tabitha, are now teenagers & drift between the house & the Granary while Ella makes some money by converting the other farm buildings into holiday lets. Ella does Sebastian's shopping & laundry but their relationship has been almost destroyed by his drinking & infidelity & Ella's guilt about her own painting. She gives up her own art almost entirely (except for occasional bouts in the middle of the night) & works as a freelance illustrator which she hates just for the money. This only adds to the guilt & resentment on both sides that keeps her apart from Sebastian.

In this curious marriage that isn't quite a marriage, Ella has become attracted to Ludo, a landscape architect working as a gardener as the financial downturn makes his skills less marketable. Ludo is a romantic & his brittle, ambitious wife, Eliza, hasn't taken kindly to their sudden drop in income. Ludo & Ella have a romantic relationship with lots of hand holding & longing looks but that doesn't look likely to ever progress to an affair.

Ella is shocked when her father, who has lived for years as an amiable doormat to his formidably organised wife, suddenly breaks loose. He takes up with a local woman who introduces him to another circle of friends, neighbours that Ella's mother, Sylvia, would never have socialised with. Sylvia's humiliation is such that she leaves home & moves into one of Ella's holiday lets. Ella & her mother aren't close. Sylvia approves of Ginnie's well-ordered life but only really approved of Ella's marriage when she could boast to her friends about her famous son-in-law. Now, with Ella's unconventional living arrangements right outside her own front door, Sylvia's brittle manner & obvious disapproval makes it impossible for Ella to do anything but clash with her. The fact that Ella's father seems to be loving his new, more relaxed lifestyle means that Ella faces having her mother on her doorstep for quite a while.

My Husband Next Door is a darker story than it first appears. There are no obvious heroes & villains. Sebastian's behaviour to Ella is horrible but she's not an entirely sympathetic character. Ella's father, Angus, seems to be the proverbial worm who turned after years of subservience but both he & Sylvia are complex characters. The reader feels a lot more sympathy for Sylvia as she gets over her hurt & anger &, encouraged by Ottoline (my favourite character) reassesses her life & future. There is humour & romance in My Husband Next Door but don't be misled by the sunny cover. This is an absorbing story of family relationships & the difficult decisions that have to be made to keep love & respect alive.

I read My Husband Next Door courtesy of NetGalley.

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