Ordinary People by Diana Evans

Ugh. There was not much I liked about Ordinary People by Diana Evans, despite it being one of the books that made my ‘end of year shopping list’.

The story focuses on two couples living in London. Michael and Melissa have two young children, and live in a crumbling, damp Victorian terrace. Melissa feels her identity is disappearing and Michael wonders where ‘the Melissa he first met’ has gone. Meanwhile out in the suburbs, Stephanie is happy with Damian and their three children, but the death of Damian’s father has thrown him into crisis, and he is questioning his relationship and the purpose of his life.

The characters are ‘ordinary people’ – their struggles and joys are ordinary – in fact, painfully ordinary. They’re bored by their relationships; their jobs are not what they dreamed; their creative projects have stalled; they can’t be arsed doing home maintenance; they resent their role in the family.

She no longer put kisses on the ends of her texts or emails during the day. Now it was only, ‘Can you pop to Lidl on way hm, chick thighs, pots, tissues, milk’, or, ‘Bog roll pls’.

I am generally drawn to ‘relationship’ stories – in them I seek something relatable in the characters, and different perspectives on what they feel or do. While there were moments of recognition in Ordinary People, there was no challenge, no reason for closer examination.

I found Evans’s writing overdone and crammed with detail – too much ‘telling’ and not enough ‘showing’ (a stark comparison to the last ‘relationship’ story I read, Writers & Lovers by Lily King). Some sentences read like extracts from a creative writing exercise, that Evans was determined to use in her novel, regardless of the relevance –

…afterwards they went to MAC, which was situated by the main entrance in the make-up hall. It was guarded by a gang of beautiful creatures in black clothes listening to dance music, the MAC ladies. They wore their make-up pouches slung on belts around their hips, from which they flipped out eye pencils, mascaras and colours to paint the faces of the weak. They were deliverers of blue, scientists of pink. They knew the secrets to lifting a dull skin and mattifying a stubborn shine.

And it continues on about MAC for another half page. Clearly I’m missing something – Ordinary People made the shortlist for the 2019 Women’s Prize for Fiction and the Folio Prize.

The early references to music (slightly after my eighties music sweet-spot but relatable nonetheless) were promising –

 The success of a party can often be measured according to the impact of Jump, by Kris Kross, on whether there is jumping during the chorus and for how long.

But ultimately, the music references are overdone and Evans uses John Legend songs to chart the plot. I guess that would be exciting for John Legend fans…

Two more peeves before I stop thinking about this book – the references to the supernatural presence in Melissa and Michael’s house (sorry, it added nothing); and the reference to life ‘balancing on a ribbon’ used by two characters at the beginning and end of the novel (so painfully contrived).

2/5 Disappointing.

Egusi was stewing. Chapattis were frying. Rice was steaming and plantain was undressing.

11 responses

  1. I generally can’t stand any male character who wonders where the wife he first met has gone. It’s a complete red flag for me. Any man having such dim thoughts clearly deserves to be ummarried and not a father because to be so oblivious truly beggars belief.

  2. I enjoyed the writing style but I did get frustrated with the characters at times! It was really interesting to read your review and get a different point of view as, like you said, this book received so much praise.

  3. I felt exactly the same about this one! It started off with good potential and just fell apart. The whole haunting subplot was super weird and felt shoe-horned in and all the characters were terrible. I read it before it was long listed for the Women’s Prize last year and was so surprised to see it on there.

    • We both clearly missed what the judges saw! Agree that the ghost subplot didn’t sit neatly, and so strangely specific (the dust, the dry skin, the broken ankle). I wondered if there were parallels to Nigerian folklore (but didn’t dig very deep to find the answer!).

      • Oh, that’s an interesting thought. If that was the case, I still feel like the author should have brought that out a bit more. It was like something from an entirely different story.

  4. Well that’s one adverse review that didn’t inspire me to read the book out of perversity. That make-up quote was so try-hard. I generally enjoy relationship stories. I was so unreflective when I was young that stories now give me a chance to think about my mistakes. (No Theresa I did not wonder where the Milly I married went, but I think she often wonders where I did).

    • The make-up quote particularly irked me but there were others I could have picked. It made the Women’s Prize list last year and I have wondered what I missed. Many reviews speak of the cultural element (some of the characters are Brits of Nigerian heritage) however although those elements provided context, the story wasn’t about that. It made me think about the discussion we had on your blog about literary criticism and culture.

      Is there a better description than ‘relationship stories’? I always say that but it doesn’t seem to be a very sophisticated description!

  5. I enjoyed this more than you, but not by much. It was a mess by the end, but I did like the London-ness of the setting and the observations about thirty-somethings and relationships, until they got too annoying for words!

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