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Separate Beds

by Elizabeth Buchan

Viking, Penquin | 2011 | 372 pages

Reviewed by Janet Garber

All in the Family

elizabeth buchan

There’s an old Jewish folktale about a poor man in a shtetl living with his wife, children and in-laws.  He goes to the Rabbi complaining about the noise and chaos in his home.  Week after week, the Rabbi urges him to let the cow, goat, chickens and pig into the one-room dwelling.  When the man reaches the breaking point, the rabbi permits him to remove the animals one by one.  The man is ecstatic: “Rabbi, I have such peace and quiet, it’s unbelievable, “What a lucky man am I!”  Sometimes this story is entitled, Things Can Always Get Worse.

Separate Beds echoes this story line:  An affluent working couple have all the material amenities they could possibly want, but are emotionally estranged from themselves and, to some extent, their children.  Then the Big Bad Recession knocks at the door.  Tom, paterfamilias, loses his prestigious job at the BBC and he and his wife, Annie, suddenly have to pare back on their lifestyle.  His aging Mom moves in with them, the nursing home having become too expensive.  Their daughter, Emily, reluctantly forsakes dreams of being a novelist to go out and earn a living.  Son Jake, a craftsman/carpenter, gets dumped by his ambitious and adulterous wife and left with the baby, and guess what?  His business does a nosedive, too, and he moves back in with his parents.

The reader, frazzled as much, or more, by this claustrophobic set-up than the ever-capable Annie, wonders if things can get much worse.  Oh yes, Grandma invites a mangy stray dog into the household.  Tom does some doubtful speculating on the market.  Jake’s wife sues for custody from America.  Annie has a wrongful death case to worry her at the hospital where she works.

A curious thing happens.  The chill between Annie and Tom shows signs of thawing.  They’re forced to room together after maintaining separate beds for years.  They begin to share and even discuss the traumatic events in their lives, including the angry departure of their radicalized daughter, Mia, five years before, with her shaggy-haired boyfriend. They have had no contact with her ever since.

nstead of implosion, the family pulls itself together though hard times do not necessarily let up.  Because this novel is set in London, the stiff upper lip code of conduct seems to apply.  Even in the midst of emotionally fraught exchanges, the conduct of all parties is surprisingly understated and contained.  Buchan’s omniscient narrator tends to over explain what is happening in the minds and psyches of the characters, telling us how brutal a remark was, rather than bringing it out in the dialogue.  Often, we don’t hear the shouts or feel the passion, but we’re told they’re there.  Heated arguments with nary a cuss word?  No hysterical crying?  How about a good tantrum?!

It may just be a British-American moment of disconnect.

The characters themselves are true to life and sympathetic enough, and we root for them to find new jobs, new loves, and a new purpose in the year we share with them.  The plot moves along in an interesting way and we hope the family will, as they say, “sort things out.” Warning: the book tires you out, especially if you are a middle-aged woman (as I am) and know viscerally what it is like to come home from a demanding hospital administrative job, and then have to make dinner for five or more people, do a couple of loads of laundry, bring your bookkeeping up to date, and, oh yes, walk the dog before going to bed.  And in between, you’re breaking up a few (verbal) fights and smoothing feathers all around.  Separate Beds, despite its upbeat ending, is not to be included in the category of escapist literature.

This novel is as topical as novels can get. (The collapse of Lehman Brothers provides a plot turn). Most of us have been forced to make adjustments in our lifestyles due to the current economic downturn and high rate of unemployment – like Annie, we may have given up certain luxuries such as the beauty salon, the cleaning lady, and the organic food market.  Like her, we may have had to hock our jewelry and a few of our prized possessions, too.  Some of us know what it’s like to be out in the job market at age 50.  What happens to this family – and what threatens to happen - haunts all of our nightmares these days.  To see that the family pulls through, more or less intact, is heartening and hopeful.

Yet, if we have to witness close hand the disintegrations of a family, isn’t it preferable to be taken along for a ride in one of Fay Weldon’s manic romps, or to witness the insane fun of A Spot of Bother, by Mark Haddon?  We love dysfunction as much as the next guy, but these other British writers prove it can be delivered with more than a dollop of humor.  So the key is to decide how much realism you’re after.

Buchan apparently has a dozen novels under her belt and a biography of Beatrix Potter, and, like Emily, needed a job first before venturing into a full-time writing career.  She worked in publishing, for Penguin as a blurb writer, and later for Random House as a fiction editor.  She lives with her husband and three children in London.

Armed with a graduate degree in English, Janet Garber deserted Academia, running off to Mexico and France for several years of wide-eyed adventure before settling back again in NYC.  As a sideline to her career in HR, she has published articles, book and movie reviews, and a book, I Need a Job, Now What?



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