Tuesday 17 October 2017

A heartfelt tale of four women in one city

Emily Hourican

An Englishwoman

in New York

Anne-Marie Casey

John Murray, £13.99

Anne-Marie Casey's training as a script- and screenwriter is very evident in this, her first novel, a sophisticated, beguiling tale of four women approaching the years that used to be called middle-aged and finding that there is a lot of life left on the other side of the dividing line.

The story is plotted episodically, the lives of the four characters weaving in and out of each other, but without ever stifling or knotting up the narrative.

There is Lucy, the eponymous Englishwoman of the title, who moves to New York from London with her two children and husband after he loses everything in the financial crash and has to take a low-level managerial job.

Goodbye private school, goodbye handsome Ladbroke Grove house, goodbye help, status and the endless round of pampering that was her daily occupation. Instead, Lucy gets a small East Village flat, and, gradually, a new lease of life, as she learns "the worst is not/ So long as we can say 'This is the worst'."

She meets Julia, the ultimate New Yorker, who juggles a demanding career as a TV producer with motherhood, and whose priorities seem firmly laid in that order.

Through Julia, comes Christy, the beautiful best friend, who lives in a penthouse in the sky with her mega-rich, rather elderly husband, and one daughter, gazing down at the city and wondering what bits of it can ever engage her. And then there's Robyn, scruffy, sexy, ornery, working two jobs to make ends meet, wrestling with the city to try to get something out of it, while her one-hit-wonder novelist of a husband is too precious to stand and fight with her.

Four women, all tackling lives that bristle with change and upheaval; confronting divorce, adultery, ambition, motherhood, existential angst, social expectations, and all finding that their friendships are the sounding boards and power houses of their onward trajectories.

All around them, the life of the city throbs and hums, providing the background sounds of car horns and glasses clinking, the flash of sunlight on glass and metal, but also the sometimes-callous morality by which material success can trump simple decency.

The excitement of New York breathes through all their lives, meaning that comparisons with Sex and The City are inevitable, and indeed acceptable as long as it's SaTC when it was a sassy and thoughtful take on the lives of women in NYC, not the foolish pantomime it became with the films and final episodes.

The writing is both witty and wise, full of quotable one-liners and clever observations that nonetheless manage not to obscure the considerable heart of the novel. This is a tribute to the resourcefulness of women, and to the depths of their friendships with one another. I found the ending too abrupt – there is an almost 'I woke up and it was all a dream' quality to it – although the slight twist does cast an interesting light over the rest of the book, producing a hall-of-mirrors effect in which reality and reflection bounce off each other.

Casey is very comfortable with material settings, deftly sketching the physical circumstances of her character's lives, from the luxury of Christy's penthouse to the claustrophobia of life with two small boys in an East Village walk-up flat.

There is a visual quality to her writing that makes it easy to play the stories out in the mind. I would be astonished if a screen version wasn't already on the cards.

Such is the immediacy of the writing, the book itself is half-way there.

Irish Independent

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