What would you do if one day, seemingly out of the blue your partner sat you down and asked for a break in your relationship? And not just a nice relaxing solo city-break, or country house break, or even a beneficial rehab break, but a break-break, meaning a separation of thousands of kilometres, zero contact and the freedom to pursue other people romantically for a timeframe of six months. This is what Marian Keyes’ latest heroine Amy is faced with when her husband Hugh decides he needs to get away from it all after falling into a depression following his father’s death and letting himself succumb to the idea of a mid-life crisis.
She has no choice but to agree, acknowledging that Hugh has been miserable for over a year and admitting that something has to be done about it. If that something is escaping to South-East Asia in pursuit of ‘self-actualisation’ then that’s what must be done. She dons a brave face, he dons an oversized backpack and they both say goodbye to their lives as they know it. Will this be the making of Hugh, his return back to a happiness he’s convinced has abandoned him, or will it be just the excuse Amy needs to do some ‘self-actualising’ of her own?
The Break is divided into three parts – before, during and after. It’s a nice structure that drives the narrative linearly while also allowing for filling-in chapters from Amy’s past. These document the great love affairs of her life, beginning with the father of her oldest daughter and their complicated relationship, moving on to lovely, solid, ultimately complicated Hugh and delving into a couple of near-misses and almost-happeneds and could-have-beens. What’s interesting about the approach to the story is that it doesn’t take off and follow the adventurer into the unknown, but the point of view of the chump who’s been left behind. What’s even more interesting is that it opens up the possibility that that very chump may well have the more revelatory, profound and fulfilling story than the one who leaves.
Amy belongs to a large family with very current, very relatable issues. Her mother, who spent most of her children’s childhoods in and out of hospital is now a frustrated carer for her husband who is in the mid-stages of Alzheimer’s. Amy’s relationship with her eldest daughter is tense, and the niece she brought up as her own child is fragile and fickle. When said niece discovers that she’s facing a teenage pregnancy the family is presented with a problem that’s very timely in our current political climate, and the situation is explored in an informed, non-judgemental, gently provocative way.
As well as holding together her family Amy must also deal with her job in PR, which brings her to London (and some divilment) on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. I’ve always found Keyes is at her best when writing interactions between her characters, which are always admirably well developed. The Break is no departure from this trend, from Amy grappling with her bossy sister Maura (a somewhat clichéd but nonetheless highly recognisable harridan in possession of a put upon husband) to bantering with her business partners Alastair and Tim to managing the clients under her control and fending off possible love, or lust interests.
The situation with Hugh also rears a situation that often happens but is rarely spoken of; the breakdown of friendships. Amy’s longest serving friend Steevie is geared up to stick pins into effigies of Hugh over copious bottles of wine but Amy is not on board. Hurt as she is by Hugh’s decision she knows it’s not out of spite towards her. Steevie does not understand and a series of disastrous lunches and tense get-togethers ensure that a rift forms between the two. When Amy finds herself not particularly caring, and not caring that their mutual friends have sided with Steevie it raises the question that possibly many people have, of whether they’re staying in friendships out of habit rather than actually benefitting from them.
Keyes’ earlier books like Rachel’s Holiday and Last Chance Saloon had a liveliness and energy that I haven’t observed in the last few I’ve read by her, including The Break. There’s a more world-weary feel as her protagonists age and procure more responsibility and less autonomy over their own lives. However the author’s signature spark and way with words is as evident as ever, and the control she exudes over every facet of the multi-layered story is expert. It’s a thought-provoking, very funny and poignant read that will leave you in hope of a follow up, and maybe even a peek into the lives of one of the other members of Amy’s sprawling family. Like the question of Hugh returning as promised and the couple’s lives reverting back to the way they were, we’ll just have to wait and see.