The bedroom was Annie’s sanctuary. This was contrary to all her expectations. It was supposed to be a shared wellspring from which Tom and she would draw strength…a place of comfort and safety where they could talk and find peace in each other’s company. But not so long after Mia had left the family and the gulf was the widest it had ever been, Tom had opted to occupy his daughter’s empty bedroom opposite. He maintained it was because he slept badly – which none of the family believed. Annie never contradicted him. – from Separate Beds, page 28 –
Annie and Tom share a house in London, but not a bed. Ever since their eldest daughter, Mia, huffed out five years previous with radical boyfriend in tow, things have never been the same. Annie blames Tom; Tom immerses himself his job with the BBC; neither is willing to bridge the ever widening gap. But their silent domain is about to get a lot noisier. Tom loses his job and seems to have nothing to do but putter around the house lamenting his bad luck. Youngest daughter, Emily, lives upstairs while she attempts (unsuccessfully) to write a novel. Then Tom’s outspoken mother, Hermione, moves in when the funds to pay for care at the nursing home dry up. And when son, Jake, finds himself without a wife and solely responsible for his young daughter, he shows up on Tom and Annie’s doorstep seeking refuge. With all the bedrooms taken up, Tom is forced to move back into the spousal bedroom…and confront the separation head on.
Elizabeth Buchan’s latest novel once again explores middle-age relationships, as well as parenting, with humor and insight into how love changes over time, especially if it is not nurtured. Emily, perhaps, best captures the sadness which accompanies estrangement when she muses that love “had nothing to do with reason and everything to do with mayhem, which left you sad and damaged.” But, although the book takes a hard look at love, it also allows for redemption and healing.
Another major theme of the novel revolves around the recent economic crisis and the loss of security and stability. All the characters are dealing with loss of some sort, and the economic crash is symbolic of the fear and insecurity that comes with loss.
I didn’t love the characters in Separate Beds – Tom was whiney, Annie almost too pulled together, Jake was weak, and Emily came off as a bit of a spoiled brat. But I did enjoy Hermione – a fiercely independent woman who must now depend on others as her health declines.
Through the glass, she appeared more diminished than he remembered from the last visit. When he was small, she had always been whippet thin, but strong, and a Turkish cigarette would have been in evidence when she played her cards (smoked fastidiously down to the stub). – from Separate Beds, page 71 –
The novel is not without its flaws – namely the glacially slow pace of the plot. Buchan includes the minutest of details of the Nicholson family’s lives and depends on their daily interactions with each other to carry the story. Most of the characters are unhappy or struggling with the changes in their lives, but inertia seems to claim them all – mostly they internalize their struggles and remain coldly polite with each other. There were times in the novel I wanted to see more emotion.
I thoroughly enjoyed Buchan’s previous novel Revenge of the Middle-Aged Woman, so I was surprised I did not love Separate Beds, which left me oddly unsatisfied at its conclusion. That said, I think this is a novel which will appeal to women in their middle years who may see themselves in Annie, a competent woman who struggles to balance her role as wife and mother, and wonders why she is not happier.
- Quality of Writing:
FTC Disclosure: This book was sent to me from the publisher for review on my blog.
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