The individual elements of Elizabeth Day’s suspense novel, The Party, are promising – campus-lit, British society, and a very fancy party where an ‘incident’ occurs that threatens reputations and relationships. Unfortunately the story was a bit of a fizzer.
At the centre is Martin Gilmour, who wins a scholarship to the prestigious Burtonbury School. Usually the outsider, Martin meets the charismatic and wealthy Ben Fitzmaurice and via him, gains access to society’s elite. The boys develop a close relationship although it’s one that’s lopsided – Martin has deep feelings for Ben, which are further complicated by a secret he has promised to keep.
By the time I got to Cambridge, my reinvention as Ben Fitzmaurice’s surrogate brother was so convincing to me, I’d almost forgotten I had a different past – one that involved gas fires and sausages in tins…
Fast-forward to Ben’s 40th birthday party – a lavish affair with a star-studded guest list. Martin and his wife, Lucy (who initially appears conservative but is actually someone with a finely tuned bullshit radar), are invited. No spoilers here, but an ‘incident’ at the party alters Martin and Ben’s relationship irrevocably.
Initially, the shifting timeline (between school days, the party and after the party) did exactly what a shifting timeline ought to do – built the suspense. However, it also revealed different aspects of Martin’s personality which left me a little flummoxed – basically, it wasn’t clear what Martin’s motives were. Was he a psychopath? Or driven by jealousy and love? Or both? While his devotion to Ben was unnerving it failed to be wholly convincing.
‘You’re always there, aren’t you, Martin?’ she had said. ‘Ben’s little shadow.’ For whatever reason, the moniker had stuck. Little shadow. Even Ben calls me it now. I’m in his phone under ‘LS’.
There were some neat and revealing observations that gave Martin’s history texture. Of his childhood he says –
There is a peculiar kind of claustrophobia that comes from being an only child of a single mother. You learn, quite quickly, that nothing you do will ever be enough to fill your parent’s yawning need for filial devotion. What starts off as love rapidly turns into a sort of inescapable hatred and the hatred is even more needy, even more trapping than the love was. It sucks you dry from the inside.
The party scenes and depiction of various guests (the school bully, now a successful businessman; the society journalist; the politician schmoozing the crowd) made for good reading but overall, it was difficult to invest in the confused characters.
2.5/5 The party was great, the rest was flat.
Important to recall how decadent the whole evening felt when we were in it, senses heightened, then dizzied by the free-flowing drink. The lychee martinis. The champagne cocktails. The Old Fashioneds made with aged tequila dating from the year of Ben’s birth. And, in an ironic nod to his university days, trays of potent, sickly-sweet Bacardi Breezers and bottles of Hooch which prompted us all to laugh at this audacious joke of his which, in another context, would seem so common, so cheap…
As part of the 20 Books of Summer reading challenge, I’m comparing the Belfast summer and Melburnian winter. The results for the day I finished this book (June 9): Belfast 12°-22° and Melbourne 5°-16°.