It's Fran's 60th birthday but she's not really in the mood for celebrating. She doesn't even feel 60 yet but that's beside the point. Her husband Duncan has been acting increasingly confused lately, not to mention his strange comments about 'Alexa' and a trip to Florence. Fran has never been to Florence (though they have been to Rome) and their son-in-law is called Alex - is Duncan showing signs of dementia or like other members of the family, is he hiding some kind of secret?
Fran's daughter Emily is definitely hiding a secret. She's happily married to Alex but that hasn't stopped her embarking on a naughty affair. She knows she's playing with fire but she just can't help herself. Fran's son Ben has lost his banking job and split with his girlfriend, Julia. Even worse, he's secretly hooked on over-the-counter painkillers and his addiction is spiralling out of control. As the family come together for Fran's birthday, it seems that almost everyone has their own guilty secrets and they're about to come spilling out.
The present day part of the book for Fran's birthday is set in 2008 and the narrative frequently switches between this and the past, in which the various secrets are slowly but surely revealed. This makes for compelling reading and there is just enough given away in each 'flashback' to keep you intrigued without giving too much away. This made me want to keep picking the book up again so that I could ultimately piece everything together. Finding out the secrets isn't the fun part really, it's seeing how the situations unfolded and wondering whether the people in question ever get found out that kept me hooked.
As you might expect from my plot synopsis, each of the characters are very interesting in their own right. They're not all likeable by any means, and much of this has to do with the nature of the secrets being carried by them. I won't go into more detail than this as it would give too much away but I was quite amazed at some of the deceit going on over the course of the book. Of course, this made for riveting reading but didn't particularly endear me to the characters themselves. In this sense, none of the characters are whiter than white - there are shades of grey with all of them. I may not have had much sympathy with many of the characters but that didn't detract from my interest. I'd definitely recommend this book!
4 November 2008: That's the date of the US presidential election, and Fran's 60th birthday. Fran is nervous about her milestone birthday - she doesn't feel that old. She is worried about her husband, Duncan, who has become rather down and forgetful. As it turns out though, her planned party will be less a celebration than the catalyst for the revelation of a lifetime of secrets.
The narrative moves between several different characters - before we even meet Fran, we are introduced to Ben and Emily, her adult children, and Susie, the other woman in Duncan's life, who also has children with him. Emily, the first character we meet, is also cheating on her husband, and Ben is abusing prescription drugs.
I have really liked all the previous books I have read by Julie Highmore, but my enjoyment of this one was mixed up with more than a little frustration. Both Fran and Susie seemed like very likeable characters, but I wasn't so impressed with Fran's kids. This novel is very readable and I flew through the 400+ pages quite fast, wanting to find out how everything would be revealed and perhaps resolved, but I missed the warmth and enjoyability of Highmore's other work - the idea of more than 30 years of deception and secrecy left a slightly bitter taste in my mouth. A convincing happy ending after all that time would have seemed more than a little implausible, and to her credit Highmore doesn't attempt this. The ending is interesting and convincing. I read this sort of novel for escapism and fun, not realism, though, and missed the feelgood factor of many of her earlier books. Also, I found her earlier books very funny, but I can't laugh so much at some of the layers of real hurt revealed here.
Despite my gripes about the storyline and reservations about the content, The Birthday was a very good read, and the 4 star rating is on that basis.
This review first appeared at www.thebookbag.co.uk