ORDINARY PEOPLE by Diana Evans
Ordinary People is an unassuming book in many ways, right down to a title that arguably puts a wall up and makes the reader ask right off the bat ‘why should I care?’ Diana Evans answers that question over the course of this slow paced yet incisive story that chronicles two disintegrating relationships in 2008 London. We follow two couples: Melissa and Michael, and Damian and Stephanie; one couple is married and one is not, though both have children and are each struggling in their own way with their domestic lives which have become increasingly loveless over the years.
At its core, Ordinary People is concerned with the question of how children fundamentally alter a relationship. “How much of yourself do you get to keep?” Melissa asks Stephanie in an exchange where the self-proclaimed feminist and the content housewife confront one another about their conflicting ideologies. Melissa, stifled by the mere thought of marriage, equates domesticity with failure, and she struggles more and more as she ages to submit to her role as a sort-of-wife and mother. Through some especially well-executed third person omniscient narration we do hear the thoughts and concerns of each of these four characters, but Melissa’s voice remains the most central; her burdens feel the most salient. The tension between Melissa and Michael is rendered brilliantly; Michael’s anxieties as a black man assimilating to the corporate world are significant, but Melissa’s perception of Michael as a representation of the patriarchy looms even larger. “… women and men, we’ve all been given this old script and don’t know how to let go of it. It seems indestructible, almost. We’re stuck. We’re all stuck. We haven’t moved forwards at all in some ways. Society makes patriarchs of decent men.”
There’s an ambiguously supernatural thread that runs through the novel as well, as Melissa believes that her and Michael’s house is haunted, and that the presence is destroying their daughter (it’s not insignificant that their son remains unaffected). Whether this element is metaphorical or literal is a balancing act that Evans plays with throughout the novel, and I ultimately found its thematic resonance satisfying. This is a quiet, internal book, and the supernatural element is no different – this isn’t the sort of book you should pick up if you’re expecting fireworks; it just kind of simmers and cools toward the end, but not in an anticlimactic way.
I only picked this up as it was longlisted for the Women’s Prize, and it naturally compares itself to two other books on the list: An American Marriage and Normal People. All three novels focus on modern-day relationships, and each of them has a political backdrop that mainly serves to contextualize the characters’ struggles. I found Evans’ prose style more comparable to Rooney’s than Jones’ – both Evans and Rooney have a style that feels smooth and simple on the surface while also providing an impressive amount of insight into the characters’ interior lives. Though Ordinary People and An American Marriage are obviously united in focusing on black protagonists and black relationships, giving each novel a sort of heft that Normal People arguably lacks (though it is my favorite of the three). But I wouldn’t say any of these novels stands head and shoulders above the others; indeed, it’s rather interesting to read them all in conversation with one another, for their similar and disparate commentaries on the way love can change over time.
You can pick up a copy of Ordinary People here on Book Depository.