Wednesday 18 September 2019

A warm saga of female friendship as age brings wisdom

Fiction: Expectation, Anna Hope

352pp, €13.49

Anna Hope's humane third novel, Expectation
Anna Hope's humane third novel, Expectation

Eilis O'Hanlon

The world of books works in predictable ways. Once a particular author breaks through commercially, the search is instantly on for someone in the same mould.

Right now publishers are on the hunt for the next Sally Rooney, following the success of the young Irish woman's first two novels, Conversations With Friends and Normal People, which have struck a remarkable chord with female twentysomethings who recognise in her characters traces of their own, still forming lives.

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Doubleday seem to think that they've found a match in Anna Hope, whose first foray into contemporary fiction, after a brace of historical novels, is being pitched to the reading public as another despatch from Rooney land, only 10 years on. Expectation's enticing motto is: "What happened to the person you were supposed to become?"

That is indeed the perennial question. Life rarely turns out as expected. Everyone ends up in roles that don't quite fit - wife, mother, daughter - and, somewhere along the way, the old you gets lost. As a catchline, it couldn't be more zeitgeisty and relevant, so it's not surprising that there was such a huge interest in what Hope would do with the premise.

The only question that matters is: does it work?

That's a tricky one to answer. The novel follows three women, all heading into their 30s, as they navigate life, love, relationships. "They have made mistakes, but they are not fatal," Hope writes, setting the scene. "Life is still malleable and full of potential... They still have time to become who they are going to be." As women, their own fertility is obviously becoming key.

Hannah is trying for a child through IVF; Lissa is an actor struggling to get parts; Cate, who doesn't have the others' certainty about "who they are and what they are going to be", has a young baby son, Tom, but she's struggling with the restrictions of motherhood. Sleep deprived and stuck in the sticks, she's wondering whether she sacrificed too much for domesticity.

There are flashbacks to their time at university; a sense of unfulfilled promise haunts all three.

At one point, Cate recalls the woman with whom she was once in love, but doesn't know if she should try to contact her again, admitting: "I'm not sure she'd approve of what I've become." "What have you become?" she's asked.

Cate answers: "Less."

It's a powerful passage, because it's so unfussily true.

The three women have to deal with everyday setbacks - infidelity, money worries, the loss of a parent - becoming grateful as they get older for "small mercies, which no longer feel so small". The novel ends with a grudging acceptance of the imperfections of compromise and conformity.

There's not much forward momentum, but then it's probably best if one thinks of Expectation as more akin to an ensemble drama such as Thirtysomething or Cold Feet, which follows the everyday connections of a small cast of characters as they weave in and out of each other's lives.

It has the flavour of an ongoing Netflix show, but one which ends mid season rather than with a series-clinching finale. It's readable, warm, sincere, engaging, and obviously heartfelt; it just falls a bit short of feeling essential.

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