book review: Ordinary People by Diana Evans

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ORDINARY PEOPLE by Diana Evans
★★★★☆
Liveright, 2018

 

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.

23 thoughts on “book review: Ordinary People by Diana Evans

  1. I love this review! Very interesting what you say about this book being basically in conversation with two others on the list because I think quite a few books on the list are. I found Bottled Goods and Milkman similar in theme, as well as Freshwater and The Pisces, although the latter two more in their integration of otherworldy creatures (and the whole thing about Lucy and the Ada not fitting in).

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    • I really struggled with writing this one for some reason so THANK YOU. I feel like I’m also reaching that point in the list where patterns are starting to emerge – I think the judges are very interested in the modern relationship this year, certainly more than last year. The Pisces and Freshwater are an interesting comparison but I would also group those two together, the way they both use magical elements to subvert tropes of the romance and coming of age genres. I’m very intrigued by Bottled Goods with the Milkman comparison, but your review has me a little nervous because I can definitely see where I might be underwhelmed by BG after loving Milkman so much.

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      • I really hope to be back at my reading game after this weekend. I need to read more of the list!
        Bottled Goods feels very German in a way, very close to the conventions of German post-war lit; maybe this is why the book felt so stale for me (I have read a LOT of German lit). I seem to be in absolute minority with my reaction.

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      • Yesssss there are some I am SO excited for you to get to! (Pat Barker.)

        Oh that’s interesting – that shouldn’t be a problem for me since I really have not read much German lit. But also, I have to keep reminding myself that Bottled Goods isn’t translated. It feels like it’s translated.

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    • I totally understand your reaction as well – it’s not exactly… my favorite thing I’ve ever read, and I don’t think I’ll find it particularly memorable in the long run, but I didn’t find it a chore to get through at all, and I thought her writing was incisive enough to make up for the lack of personal connection to any of it? But, yes, glad it was longlisted, and it wouldn’t be my first choice for the shortlist but I don’t think I’ll be mad if it makes it.

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  2. Wonderful review! It’s interesting to think of this as in conversation with some of the other novels on the longlist. I personally wasn’t a big fan of what I read of An American Marriage—the writing felt sort of derivative and the characterization shallow—but it does sound similar to this in its focus on the challenges of maintaining love while dealing with time’s passing and racism.

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  3. Great review! I’ve realized I have a copy of this book – picked up a month or so ago at a thrift store, without realizing how recent it was. I’m now bumping it up the list to read it sooner so thanks!

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  4. This is a great review. 🙂 I’m hoping I’ll have time to pick this one up later today. I haven’t been especially excited about it, but I’m not dreading it either? It’s encouraging that you found it so easy to get through and thematically interesting. I’m v intrigued by the supernatural element also, which I had no idea to expect from the synopsis.

    I was also just starting to think about the ways that so many of the longlist titles seem paired. I love reading those juxtapositions, but I think it’ll make my shortlist predictions very either/or.

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    • I felt similarly about this one, and I picked it up with relatively low expectations so it was a pleasant surprise! Not my favorite book by any means, but I think it’s an interesting one and I’m not mad about its inclusion on the list at all. I’ll be very interested to hear your thoughts as most of my friends who’ve read this have been pretty torn on it.

      And yes, completely! Like, Silence of the Girls vs. Circe is the obvious one, but I also think there’s An American Marriage vs. Ordinary People, apparently Milkman vs. Bottled Goods (I haven’t read BG yet but Hannah @ I have thoughts on books said they were thematically similar), maybe Ghost Wall vs. My Sister since I don’t imagine they’ll shortlist two novellas? And it’s interesting to see which kinds of themes the judges are focusing on this year – failing relationships seem to be a big one.

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      • I would agree that Milkman and Bottled Goods are comparable. I would even maybe say The Pisces and Freshwater have a few things in common- a defiance of gender norms, the inclusion of an inhuman entity, a period of self-discovery.
        There do seem to be quite a lot of intriguing relationships this year. Not even just romantic ones, but the siblings in My Sister and Chinese Restaurant, the parent/child dynamics in Ghost Wall and Praise Song, etc. There are so many points of overlap. I almost feel like I should draw a map of all the ways they compare and contrast before I do any predicting for the shortlist, because it just doesn’t seem like both books will advance in the cases where two seem similar. Which almost feels a bit unfair to some of the titles, which seem to be in competition only with one or two others rather than having an equal chance with the rest of the list. Which I hope isn’t actually true and is just me overthinking it, but also I don’t really want to see BOTH Circe and Silence of the Girls advance, for example. But it’ll be interesting to see what they do with the shortlist either way.

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      • I was talking to Hannah about this yesterday and we paired them all off like this:

        An American Marriage and Normal People: relationships failing
        Ordinary People and Remembered: domestic ghosts
        Milkman and Bottled Goods: women under surveillance
        Ghost Wall and Serial Killer: novellas with commentary on gender roles
        Silence of the Girls and Circe: duh
        The Pisces and Freshwater: gender, self-discovery, and magical realism
        Lost Children and Praise Song: ‘issue books’
        Chinese Restaurant and Swan Song: too long, too many characters

        But yes, I totally agree, even if the books don’t pair off exactly like that, there are some obvious points of overlap where I don’t imagine both books will advance (especially Circe and Silence, and Ghost Wall and Serial Killer – I doubt two novellas will be shortlisted…) And I’m sure the judges will also consider things like diversity, I think the longlist is 50% non-white authors so I imagine that will also be reflected in the shortlist. I’m very excited to see how this plays out!

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      • Wow, you guys have got it so organized! I wasn’t sure where the 3 I haven’t started yet would fall, and I was torn about how to divide American Marriage/Normal People/Ordinary People, so I hadn’t gotten far with my map, lol. It really does seem like a tangled web. The only other longlist I’ve read was last year’s Booker list, and I didn’t read it fast enough to make shortlist predictions, but I don’t remember feeling like there were so many similarities that would affect what was chosen to advance and what wasn’t. I’m sure I’ll guess this one all wrong, but it’ll be fun anyway. Are you going to do a shortlist prediction?

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      • I wasn’t sure about how to separate An American Marriage/NP/OP either – I think AAM/OP is the obvious comparison, but then Hannah mentioned that Remembered has ghosts so we ended up going in that direction. But I definitely group all three of those together in my head.

        I think I’ll do a shortlist prediction on Twitter and then a reaction post on here after it’s announced! Are you going to do a predictions post once you’re done the longlist?

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      • I’ll have to keep an eye out! I do want to post predictions for the shortlist, and just some general reactions to the longlist since I didn’t do that when it was announced. I want to combine it with a favorites ranking once I’ve read them, which I’m still hoping will be a few days before the shortlist announcement. I still have Swan Song left, which is a bit daunting, but I don’t have any higher TBR priorities now, so fingers crossed!

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      • I’m struggling so much with how to do my rankings, because I’m realizing my favorites list and my want to win list do not really overlap. Like, obviously I LOVE Milkman but since it already won the Booker there are a few other titles I’d rather see recognized for this prize… Same with Normal People, I loved it but I just don’t think it needs the publicity from this.

        I’ll be interested to see how you get on with Swan Song, I’ve been reading it for a million years and am finding it a bit of a slog, but it has so many good reviews!

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      • I’m having the same challenge with Milkman and Normal People, and I’m also torn on a few of the very similar book pairings in which I either want both to advance or neither, even though I hope overall for a good balance and a mix of all of the major themes from the longlist. I think in the end I’ll end up with two lists, a ranking of favoritism, and a slightly different list of what I actually think/hope might advance.

        A million years! 😂 I’ve been seeing a lot of comments like that, which makes me wary even though the premise does sound interesting to me. Either way, I am planning to start Swan Song today! It will be good to have the longest book out of the way, however it goes.

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      • I’m leaning toward doing two lists as well when I review the longlist: one ranked by favoritism and one ranked by the order in which I’d like to see them win.

        That was my rationale as well for starting Swan Song so early, but I ended up having to put it aside because four of my library holds came in at the same time and I had to prioritize all of those. So I’m going to start the last one, Praise Song, today, and once I finish that I can hopefully dive back into Swan Song. I’m still only 30% through!

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