After the Party by Lisa Jewell
What a relationship looks like after 11 years and two small children is the subject of British writer Lisa Jewell’s unexpectedly moving new novel, After the Party.
Ralph and Jem meet as flatmates in a romantic London hovel; they fall in love at an art gallery in Ladbroke Grove when Ralph, an artist, unveils an exhibition of which the subject is Jem. As Jewell writes, Jem takes one look at the paintings, another look at Smith, Ralph’s friend and her erstwhile boyfriend (who is at that moment drunkenly proclaiming his love to a different, entirely uninterested woman), and promptly and passionately collapses into Ralph’s arms.
What follows is seven years of unrelenting bliss. They move from the flat to a house, have thriving careers and luxuriate in lie-ins and champagne-fuelled picnics in Battersea Park. Then Jem, approaching 32, decides she wants a baby. She has always desired a family; Ralph doesn’t see the need to add another person to their harmonious existence and proceeds with reluctance. The five childbearing years which ensue strain the relationship, with Jem suffering miscarriages before and between the births of Scarlett and Blake, and Ralph failing to bond with his infant son.
The book is cleverly structured, not following a linear form but opening with a prologue detailing Ralph and Jem’s separation and shared custody of the children – they spend the first half of the week with their mother and the second with their father. When Ralph fails to pick them up for his allotted three days, Jem knows something is wrong, and his vague explanation and subsequent disappearance heightens her concerns.
Part one (of four) begins one year earlier, as the relationship is disintegrating. Panicked by Jem’s apparent disinterest in him, Ralph decides to go to California for a week to visit Smith. There, he meets a captivating Australian named Rosey, while back in London, Jem finds herself drawn to Joel, the solo dad of Scarlett’s friend. The week apart initially tightens the family unit, but the emotional distance remains, and when a plausibly unexpected and problematic event occurs, the couple’s foundations are shaken perhaps beyond recovery.
Clearly it’s ‘chick-lit’ (an annoyingly reductive categorization), but whether you consider that a selling point or an alarm bell, Jewell’s writing is artful and confident, elevating her story far above the mundane.
The tale’s focus is Ralph and Jem’s relationship, so the character development of the peripheral figures is less than robust; Smith, Rosey, Joel, Jem’s sister Lulu and others are ciphers designed to move the plot at breakneck pace towards a satisfying and thoughtful conclusion. (Though any one of these characters would make an engaging protagonist; Jewell has a knack for exposing the more intriguing elements of the human personality in a few paragraphs.)
After the Party is a sequel to the first of Jewell’s seven novels, Ralph’s Party, which covers the eventful period preceding Ralph and Jem’s coupling. It’s an intimate, cogent depiction of how a stable, loving relationship can start to fragment – and how people might behave in the face of this and amid the vicissitudes of life.
Jewell writes in the preface to After the Party that faithful readers’ excitement at the prospect of a sequel both spurred her on and terrified her, and she hopes she hasn’t let them down. On the contrary: this will win her many new fans.
This review was previously published on Coast.co.nz.
Reviewer: Stephanie Jones
Published by Penguin