I’ve never read anything by Elizabeth Day, but this was highly recommended by lots of people in the end-of-year lists that I used to get ideas for reading for the year ahead, and those recommendations tended to use words like ‘readable’ and ‘pacy’ which is like catnip to a reader like me looking for books that are enjoyable as well as those that are endurable. And this lived up to the promise: it whizzed past in a day and a half, and was highly entertaining. It’s the story of Martin and his wife, Lucy, who co-narrate the novel; although really it is the tale of Martin’s obsession with his rich friend Ben, from boarding school up to the tumultuous party of the title.
It’s a gripping page-turner, but it’s certainly not insubstantial: it’s arguably as much a book about unrequited gay love, about stalking and unhealthy relationships (Martin becomes known as Ben’s ‘Little Shadow’), about education and opportunity, about the pain of loss (and how we cover it up), and also about the political elite. A Cameron-esque Prime Minister makes an appearance at the party (which could be the Cotswolds set), and there is another boarding school bully who has now become a hotly tipped MP on the rise; Ben himself looks set to head that way. Day pretty much manages to skewer them all with controlled anger.
Interestingly, despite this being primarily a book about Martin and Ben (with Martin its unlikeable, sinister central presence), it was the two wives, Lucy and Serena, who stayed with me afterwards; especially Lucy, who feels like the sane and grounded heart of the book. I was amazed to read one review (oddly by a reviewer called Lucy!) which didn’t even mention her, given that her journal forms part of the narrative, given she is a crucial figure in the proceedings on the night, and given she provides a feeling of order and sense away from the elitist nonsense and her husband’s dark obsessions. Serena, too, is extremely memorable as a woman in-and-out of control, driven by an icy ambition, and also as a ‘rival’ to Martin for Ben’s love. The clashes between the two are acerbic and brilliantly done.
It’s not a perfect book: I found the end a slight let-down and a bit far-fetched, and the public school and posh family characters veer towards stereotypes at times; it also suffers marginally from Martin’s aloof and inscrutable nature as a central character. But these are minor quibbles: it’s a great read and a really enjoyable take on the current state of a part of modern Britain. Highly recommended.