Thomas and Mary by Tim Parks

Usually when I read a book I don’t think much about the author’s personal life. Sure, an author has to invest some of themselves in what they write but unless it’s a memoir I don’t dwell on the extent of that investment. And then I read Thomas and Mary by Tim Parks. And I can’t stop thinking about the state of Tim Parks’s personal life. Specifically, I’m thinking he’s either been through a bitter divorce; paying child support for the next one thousand years; and/or has had affairs left, right and centre. I’m wondering because Thomas is such an intimately drawn character.

Of course, I could be wrong and the reality is that Tim Parks has an exceedingly good imagination.

The subtitle of Thomas and Mary is ‘A Love Story’ but there’s not a lot of love in this story. It’s largely told from Thomas’s point of view, and describes the slow disintegration of his marriage. It’s in describing the mundane – from Thomas and Mary’s differing bedtimes and whose responsibility it is to look after the indoor plants, to their failure to agree on music – that you realise that it’s these details that are as much to blame as Thomas’s affairs and Mary’s devotion to her dog.

“So as not to have to pretend to be asleep again, which he finds painful, he goes to bed early. Mary joins him at 11:30 and hardly cares whether he is asleep or not, since she has nothing to say to a man who she believes is having an affair.”

There’s a repetitiveness and flatness to Parks’s writing that suits this story (I haven’t read anything else by Parks so can’t say whether it’s his usual style) – bland details about tennis matches, walking the dog and care arrangements for Thomas’s mother blend seamlessly with Thomas’s philandering, their son’s confidence crisis and Mary’s volunteering stint in Africa. It’s an interesting way to show that the cumulative effect of small events can be just as damaging, if not more, than a single catastrophe.

“Smiles through cataracts and a healthier diet. A yearly pact to rearrange the photographs. Why wasn’t that our destiny? Thomas wonders. Thomas wonders how to deal with a past of erosion and unravelling.”

Chapters of this book have been published as stand-alone short stories. Although it reads as vignettes, it is cohesive. I like this style however I didn’t enjoy the story being told from so many different points-of-view – some didn’t work (in particular, the chapters from Thomas’s father and uncle).

3/5 I admired the style. I didn’t admire Thomas.

I received my copy of Thomas and Mary from the publisher, Random House UK, via NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.

“Thomas ate his salad. It was quite a mix of leaves and radishes and nuts and apples and rocket and feta cheese and fennel. Very tasty.”

Not quite what Thomas eats but there is this Shaved Fennel, Radish and Apple Salad – I love wafer thin, peppery radish slices in salads.


8 responses

  1. I love books that are dry like this, dry in a way that captures being married and reminds me that life IS in those details, not in making every day a big dramatic thing. One of my least favorite things about books like The Hunger Games is that every single second is action-packed, and I end up feeling depressed, like I’m doing something wrong if I’m simply watering the plants or feeding the cat.

    • You’re absolutely right – very hard to make a good, compelling story out of the everyday but I guess people can identify with such stories because they are ‘everyday’!

  2. For a long time I thought Parks either had a substance abuse problem or a massive alimony bill such was his prolific output. Then he published Trying to Sit Still which was all about what a driven workaholic he was and how he had addressed it using meditation. It turned out that he was in a long and happy marriage.

  3. I actually really like the sound of this book. It’s impressive when writers are able to capture those mundane details of daily life without boring the reader. And, I am relieved to hear from Susan that the writer is not like his protagonist.

    • The structure was interesting. You begin (in the first chapter) feeling sympathy for Thomas but then he so casually reveals something about his girlfriend and i was like WAIT. WHAT?!

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