Jack Middleton keeps reminding us of two things: first, that he was once England’s most promising composer; and second, that despite living on the edge of Hampstead Heath with his beautiful eco-activist millionaire-heiress wife, he’s a working-class boy at heart.
Adam Thorpe’s new novel begins in Estonia in 1999, where Jack is seeking inspiration. He writes a bit of music while he’s there, and also has an affair with a waitress, Kaja. His wife Milly, still in London, has just discovered that she’s pregnant. He carries on with Kaja for a few days and then flies home, his Baltic fling behind him.
Six years on, things aren’t so rosy. Milly, who lost the earlier pregnancy in a car accident, is desperate to conceive, and explodes when Kaja shows up with a five-year-old son. Adding to the stress, Jack’s blind mum falls out of a window. The weather’s too hot. The NHS is in trouble. House prices are up. But at least England wins the Ashes.
Thorpe is a fine writer: there are passages of elegant description and some scathing set pieces. But this potentially venomous critique of life in late-Blair London struggles to cut through all the background noise, its satirical voice drowned out by a straightforward adultery story, and a pretty standard Hampstead midlife crisis.