Wednesday, January 23, 2019

The Essence of the Thing

The Essence of the Thing / Madeleine St John
New York: Carroll & Graf, c1997.
234 p.

After being introduced to Madeleine St John through her book The Women In Black late last year, I knew I wanted to read more of her work. Thanks to our Interlibrary Loan system, I was able to find her other 3 novels -- she only wrote four books in total so I am trying not to rush through them too quickly. But I did get through this book in a day or two.

It's completely different than her first one. I liked this but didn't fall in love with it like I did with The Women in Black. This one feels more like a typical English novel in the style of Anita Brookner, or one of the varied Penelopes.

Nicola goes out to the corner store to pick up some cigarettes one night, and returns to discover that her boyfriend Jonathan has coldly decided that they are over and that she needs to move out. This catches her completely unaware, and the shock and upset carry her through the next few days as Jonathan goes to visit his parents to give her time to vacate the premises.

So she does, and friends take her in and help her through her confusion and distress, and suggest helpful things like "we should kill him". They help her with practicalities like finding her own place to live once again, and get her back into life. She even finds a new and more exciting job that will take her out of London. Meanwhile, Jonathan discovers that what he thought he was feeling is not at all what he'd believed.

It's a sad and true-to-life look at relationships and how they founder, and how lives are affected when a person is alienated from their own emotions. While it seems predictable in some of the plot elements, there is also enough honesty and humour in the emotional exposition to make it original and true. It moves quickly, with short chapters and a lot of conversation, not too much drawn out introspection despite the topic. 

At times it does feel a bit as if she's writing about characters she knows about from reading about them elsewhere, in other English novels, but in the end I did find that Nicola's move toward independent life was enough to make me enjoy this book. It's somehow not sentimental about a very emotional situation; it shows the sadness in the loss of this relationship and reveals that it's not going to be a sweet, happy ending with everything forgotten and a return to what they had before. But that's realistic indeed. 

The balance that the author is working toward is made clearly evident. The title drop explains the core of this story, the essence of it, so to speak.
"That was Nicola’s marmalade, and they were not now in a shared-marmalade situation. He knew he’d been right in principle, in essence: it was just the mundane details which took a bit of getting used to. Too bad about the marmalade. The balance between bitter and sweet was the essence of the thing."

Photo by Calum Lewis on Unsplash


  1. I love the quotation at the end (and the photo). It sounds like a book worth reading. Excellent review!

    1. It was interesting -- a lot more modern and cynical than her first one, for sure! But still quite good.

  2. My library came through with an ILL copy of The Women in Black - I'm excited to read it! I'll keep her other three in mind for later reading.

    1. That's the best one, I think :) Enjoy!

  3. I'm a huge fan of the Women in Black too & promised myself (over 5 yrs ago now) to read more St John, but I still haven't! I love the bitter sweet reference & photo too.

    1. I'm finding her three interconnected English novels interesting but MUCH different than The Women In Black. Much edgier, sharper, more cynical, contemporary etc.


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