I've finished Justin Cartwright's The Promise of Happiness and have not changed my opinion since writing about the earlier part of the book - it's strongest point is the utterly convincing creation by the author of a family in crisis. It is equal parts intrigue and philosophy. The characters' psychology are plumbed and several of them are pushed to confront serious questions about responsibility and love for others - real moral questions - but philosophy is woven into a compelling plot in such a fashion that I never had the feeling that 'oh, I am reading the philosophical part of the book, and when will the plot resume.'
Each character's point of view is unique, well imagined, and beautifully described:
Sophie sees London, she has to admit it, in a peculiar way: certain areas have certain colours. She sees Chelsea and the whole of the area between the river and Harrods as a dense maroon. Of Course she goes there from time to time, but mostly she prefers the thinned-out green colours of places like Shoreditch, Clerkenwell, Camden, Soho and Brixton. Then there are other areas that she hardly knows, like Battersea, Finchley and Waterloo. These are mustard yellow. She tries to avoid Hammersmith, where she was at school; it has no colour. It is like the unexplained clear liquid you find cohabiting with your blood. Walton Street, with its excessive polish, its flower boxes, expensive curtain and tassel shops, its expressive door knockers on white front doors, its general air of self-congratulation, is deep in maroon territory.
She's headed that way. Once you cross into a maroon area you are in a world of confident voices and expensive accessories. And chaps...
I enjoyed the following character's physical description very much, not simply for its detail but because rather than being handed it by the narrator, one character gives it to another in a totally convincing way:
I am looking at her now and hits is what I have to report: Ana is beautiful, in a Latin way.; Her hair is almost indecently thick. It glows: it seems to have taken electric energy from the universe. Her eyebrows are solid perhaps she should thin them, and her eyes are enormous. I am looking closely at them to see if she has enhanced the effect, but alas no, she does have VERY BIG GREENY-GREY EYES. Her lips are ribbed, like those extra-sensation condoms - they are camellia pink today - and her cheekbones are high. The most extraordinary thing about her is the sort of noble, forward-thrusting look of her forehead. It's quite odd once you notice. She definitely has some Indian blood. Perhaps she's Inca....
An extravagant description of an extravagant character given convincingly in the voice of another character we have come to know.
The depiction of family dynamic was perfect. Here's a scene when Mum comes to stay with her youngest daughter, Sophie, in her funky apartment in London. Sophie has just quit her job in television advertising and taken out her nose ring. Mum is worried that she has a drug problem:
She had slept on the sofa, with Mum in her bed, and they were happy and contented, like children in a tree house, congratulating themselves: Mum said that it was such fun. She had brought her white nighties, with the minute roses embroidered around the neck, and her rosewater, which she used to cleanse her face. Sophie slept in a T-shirt that read Xfm, given to her by a boyfriend who had been a DJ.
'Oh Sophie,' she called through the very thin wall.
'There may be a job for you this summer at the Blue Banana. Phoebe Talbot, her family takes that big hyouse, Sheepfold, the one with the tennis court, is working there. She's going to talk to the owner.'
'I'll think about it.'
'Only if you want her to. I thought it might help, for a bit.'
'In what way, Mum?'
'If you want a break from London.'
'Mum, I don't think we are all going to settle in Cornwall, if that's what you are hoping.'
'No, but if you - '
'No, Mum. It's not going to happen.'
'Sophie, you don't mind me asking Phoebe, do you? She's a sweet girl. Nothing's fixed.'
'No, Mum, it was like good of you to think of me.'
'I just thought it would give you an extra option. It's just an idea.'
Her mother has no way of hiding her thought processes.
I love that scene because it manages to get inside the heads of both characters but from the point of view of just one of them.
My quibble with time shifts earlier in my reading vanished after the third one. It's not that they were difficult to follow, rather that the first one landed with a explicative clunk. They became part of the landscape, as did the shifts in point of view as we moved to a new chapter. Those shifts from character to character gave this novel its poignancy. For all the love people can have for each other, we cannot live inside each other's heads. It is a struggle to connect deeply with others and there is an obstacle to completely fulfilling that connection. Cartwright found a way to make a story about this struggle moving, thoughtful and entertaining.