Anatomy of a marriage that dispenses with the emotional plasters
Fiction: The Week I Ruined My Life, Caroline Grace-Cassidy, Black and White Publishing, pbk, 296 pages, €7.99
'I am a mess. I am a woman who's in danger of losing her husband, but more importantly, of breaking up a family. I can't seem to control it. It's spiralling," Ali Devlin, the spiky narrator of Caroline Grace-Cassidy's fifth novel, tells us.
The book fits the mould of a chick-lit novel with its one-woman-two-guys storyline, but as the plot unravels in a haze of suburban dolour, author, actor and TV3 Midday panellist Grace-Cassidy develops it into more of a Springsteen-like reality check than a fairy tale.
She invites readers into the marriage of Ali and Colin Devlin - the seemingly perfect couple who, after 12 years, two kids and too many nights in, are showing all the signs of being not quite that at all. Ali is trying to escape her damaged relationship by throwing herself into a new job, by confessing everything to her best-friend Corina and spending more and more time with her arty colleague Owen.
Ali's marriage to Colin is anatomised with maddening precision - so maddening, in fact, that I was very disturbed by Ali's relentless passivity in the face of what amounts to spousal abuse. "'Oh Little Miss Career Woman, now are we? Angela Merkel, what?' He makes a fist with his left hand and covers his mouth with it stifling a fake laugh," Colin says to Ali in one scene.
The children themselves tend to be two-dimensional, mini-minxes deployed to be cartoon cute.
The most important story-within-a-story, however, is that of Corina. She's the pickled in Chardonnay, HD-eyebrowed Bridget Jones who is screaming inside to the frantic soundtrack of her expiring biological clock.
"Ever since I was a little girl, all I've ever wanted was a big family. Kids running around everywhere. My clock is ticking, I'm 39 next year, Ali, and single as lone sniper," she moans.
Corina has just been spectacularly ghosted and provides the catch-the-man sub plot.
The result is, yes, a chick-lit book - a thirty-something female protagonist dealing with the challenges of being a woman in our time - but something also a bit more searching.
Grace-Cassidy looks closely at the psychology of relationships as couples make the difficult journey from child-free frivolity to the realities of rearing offspring. Her sincere depiction of both sexes' psyches is so much more satisfying than a portrait of some torrid 'breakdown' would be, uncovering the gamut of human emotions - from frailty to bitterness, jealousy to bullying, all bottled into characters that bubble with imperfections.
As the novel progresses, the tone darkens significantly. Ali is forced to choose between a loveless but stable marriage, or risk it all on Owen, a man she barely knows. In 290-odd pages, Grace-Cassidy lures us into an escapist illusion and then spits us out brutally, with only the partial comfort that even heroines of fiction can be harshly tested. She makes her characters suffer and there are no chocolate-centred happy endings here. In the end, trauma prompts our heroine to do what she really wanted to all along.
Grace-Cassidy can write extremely well, deftly capturing scenes in brisk sentences and paragraphs. The key to selling any story lies in sympathetic characters and the willingness of an audience to want to walk through the world created between a novel's pages.
She refuses to go for the easy emotional plaster but shows just how deep real wounds can cut. You will fall into The Week I Ruined My Life as you would a soft settee.
Grace-Cassidy's messages are many, but possible side effects are a sleepless night and putting off that wedding.