Over the years, Nat and Neil have built a comfortable, loving life together. Their life is one of warm, pleasant routines and inoffensive compromises gradually negotiated over boozy nights, coffee-drenched mornings, and cozy evenings spent with their attention middling somewhere between the television and a reasonably priced bottle of red. They’re yuppies, but the sort who wouldn’t dream of labelling themselves as such–they just like the small and bipartisan middle-class coupledom world they’ve established. Nat takes pride in her work at a small-scale pharmaceutical company, returning home each night aglow with the fuzzy thought that she is doing her part to change the world (an alternative cause of her fuzzy elbows may be that bottle of red), while Neil slops off at ten each morning to indulge in some well-paid computer game testing. Neil mildly puts up with treated like a glorified hot water bottle during the winter months, and accepts that he’ll never be granted majority share over the bathroom cupboards; Nat obligingly trusses herself up in lacy underthings and remains silent when Neil insists on using a separate dish for each ingredient whilst cooking. They have similar outlooks on life, quietly judging and comparing themselves against others in that couple-esque manner, laughing at those they find whimsical or tragically amusing, tutting at those they find simply tragic. Tonight, the tragic individuals who are the subject of this judgement are some of Neil’s nearest and dearest: life-long would-be bride Jen, whose clutching talons are unable to find a hold on notorious womaniser Karl, and poor Tim, whose low sperm count is the central topic of conception-obsessed Ali.
Nat and Neil meet each others eyes as they toss back their respective reds almost as emphatically as Ali tosses away Tim’s (alcohol plays havoc on the viability of spermatozoa, it seems). They are smug in their coupley sameness, in their unerring agreement on whatever life brings. They will never find themselves in Ali and Tim’s desperate predicament: the prospect of having children, that smelly, expensive, and youth-stealing prospect, has been vetoed outright. But relationships, unfortunately, are not a court of law, and decisions can be overturned without so much as the introduction of new evidence. While Nat’s biological clock sits quietly dormant somewhere deep within her, Neil’s suddenly springs to life with the joyous gusto of a cuckoo chiming the hour. This epiphanous occasion, however, is promptly struck down by Nat, who can’t help but feel that Neil may have eaten a tainted beefsteak or two as a child–the man’s brain has clearly turned to mush if he thinks that she will capitulate on her kid-free stance. . .
In its opening pages, Men I’ve Loved Before is full of promises. Parks writes intimately and incisively about her characters, sketching the dynamics between them with confidence and flair. Nat and Neil are positioned as likeable and loving, and I was heartened by the proposition of reading about a well-adjusted couple who actually enjoyed each other’s company rather than leading a life of unspoken, seething resentment. Neil’s sudden promulgation of the need to go forth and multiply introduces an interesting tension whose resolution I was curious to uncover–after all, it is so often in fiction the woman whose longing for a child is shrugged off by a partner whose interest is focused elsewhere.
But the book suddenly and rather painfully veers in an awkward direction, much in the way an interstate driver attempting to perform a hook turn in Melbourne’s CBD might. Neil, heretofore a rather pleasant chap who professes nothing but adoration for his wife, tries for a few weeks to show Nat that perhaps a bubs or two wouldn’t be the fearsome addition to their lives she seems to think it might be, and then suddenly gets on his high horse, accuses Nat of cruel intransigence, develops a not-quite-platonic relationship with a stripper, and surreptitiously mutilates a condom in order to impregnate an unwitting Nat. Nat, meanwhile, begins to wonder whether her husband is indeed the right person for her and, with the help of her handy dandy university-era address book, sets up a series of meetings with all of her prior flames. Needless to say, things for both Nat and Neil devolve into all manner of gauche awkwardness, and their relationship promptly unravels in the manner of a knock-off designer scarf.
I must say that I was disappointed with the direction in which the author took this books. I was heartened by a set-up that seemed to promise a thoughtful rumination on issues of parenthood, and why not wanting children is a legitimate stance in today’s society. Instead, the author offers up a last-minute reveal about an incident in Nat’s past that is the inciting reason behind her child-free position. The implication of this, of course, is that a woman would only take such a position if she is in some way broken, and that such a stance is in some way wrong. In contrast, Neil’s prior lack of interest in having children is not problematised at all. While I appreciate the author’s effort to reverse the perspectives we’re typically presented with in relation to the issue of having children, I’m disappointed in the way things ultimately turned out. In addition, I have some major qualms with Neil’s decision to take pregnancy matters into his own hands, a concept that I find rather more chilling than romantic–and Nat’s reaction to this even more so. However, other readers may well find they feel differently.
Men I’ve Loved Before begins strongly, and readers may find that this initial momentum, as well as the generally excellent depiction of the main characters, is enough to carry them through to the end. There is certainly some snappy writing in this book, and while the characters may feel a little overly witty at times, generally both the prose and dialogue are sharp and on-target. Unfortunately, I can’t help but feel a little disappointed by a book that felt increasingly rushed as it progressed–this is particularly true of its conclusion, where things tie up in a painfully saccharine manner–but that also seemed slightly dishonest. I’m not sure that the characters’ actions were entirely true to their personalities, and I found myself quite conflicted over the position that this book ultimately took on not only the notion of parenthood, but also on ostensibly loving relationships.
With thanks to Headline Review for the review copy.
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