Ordinary People

Ordinary People, by Diana Evans

This novel takes us through a year of two relationships that appear to be approaching the end. The consistent question throughout the book is which one, if any, can survive all that life demands. While the description implied that there would be equal focus on Damian and Stephanie, in fact the novel is primarily about Melissa and Michael, an unmarried couple with two children, who live in an old, crooked South London house which Melissa believes is possibly haunted.

Following the birth of their second child, Melissa and Michael are in a dry spell — Michael is still in love with her and attracted to her, while Melissa is floundering in her new role as a freelance writer and mother of two. She feels trapped in her house, and she begins to resent Michael for diverting her life. Before she met him, she had been a free spirit; now she hardly gets a moment to herself, and spends her days dusting the house and taking her baby to play groups led by unbearably perky women.

What I enjoyed about this book was that the narrator was honest about how Melissa felt about her role as a mother and the struggles that came with it, while also showing us that Melissa is a wonderful mother who loves her children and sincerely cares about giving them the best care she can. Too often mothers are depicted as either ‘good’ or ‘bad’: ‘good’ because their entire lives are consumed by their children, and ‘bad’ because they need a break, or wish they had the luxury of doing something different on occasion. Here Evans gives us what feels like a real-life glimpse of romantic relationships and parenthood. Melissa reads about the best way to handle conflict with her eight-year-old daughter, but admits that she sometimes wishes she had taken a different path entirely.

On top of the insights on relationships and motherhood, this novel exposed different cultures, the complicated lives of immigrants and children of immigrants, and the quiet moments in which race plays an important role in life. For example, as Michael rushes into to a work reception, in addition to all the other tension in his life, he takes a moment to wonder if he will be the only Black person in the room. While the novel did not focus on race in the same way Such a Fun Age does, for example, these moments landed very powerfully and I appreciated the importance of reading more work by Black writers as one way of advancing my understanding and awareness of racism (in addition to reading just for fun, of course).

I did find I was quiet uncomfortable overall with an omniscient narrator, which Evans employs throughout the novel. She dips in and out of consciousness of all the characters, but I missed the closeness of a more focused narration. I felt as if I was hovering just over these characters, watching their story unfold, rather than in it with them, truly getting to know them and understand their experiences. I think omniscient narrators are much more rare today than in the 19th and 20th century, however this technique did allow Evans to build in a remarkable landscape of London, as well as use historical events to scaffold her story. Three stars.

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