Monday 19 August 2019

Expectation by Anna Hope: Big expectations of this astute take on female friendship

Fiction: Expectation

Anna Hope

Doubleday, paperback, 324 pages, €15

Observational power: Anna Hope
Observational power: Anna Hope

Tanya Sweeney

Female friendship is messy, ­imperfect and exquisite. Some of them run longer and deeper than canyons. Other female friends can be spectacularly cruel to each other, often without realising it.

And as women attempt to sketch a roadmap for their lives, our nearest and dearest friends can act as beacon or roadblock. Sometimes both.

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Lena Dunham certainly wasn't the first writer to put a fine point on female friendship's inner workings, but in Girls, she managed to convey the complexity of a group of women with refreshing élan.

There was the bitching gussied up as truth-telling, the confusing frictions, the way in which women blithely tell each other they love each other 'til death do them part. Female friendships are divine one day; fragile as gossamer the next.

Suffice to say that there are rich pickings to be had from the theme, and so it goes with Anna Hope's trio of thirtysomething pals. Each of them is attempting to live up to their own expectations (or, for that matter, expectations imposed by others).

Expectation flits backwards and forwards in time, from wedding to school to lazy Sunday afternoon, giving a voice to all three women. Anyone who came of age in the mid-90s will certainly appreciate the atmosphere evoked in the trio's origin story.

Lissa and Hannah meet as teens in a Manchester college in the mid-90s, at a point in time when they are trying to figure out exactly who they want to be.

In what amounts to one of the book's richest passages, life's rich bounty of options is still unfurled in front of them. Under such circumstances, and sharing a similarly deadpan worldview, it's easy for a kinship to flourish. Cate, looking for a place to live, winds up sleeping habitually on Hannah's couch, and so the trio is born.

The three women live for a time in their twenties in the best house on the edge of London Fields, before the area was cannibalised by gentrification.

They don't know it at the time, but when they each hit their thirties, they will each covet what the others have. The idealism and excitement that marked their post-college years has dulled to a flicker. Each of them are a long way from the women they blithely assumed they would become.

Having it all has become less a call to arms, and more of a millstone. Their friendships, once strong and unchallenged, have faded.

Fast-forward 15 or so years, and Lissa is a struggling actress but is single (not strictly by choice), seemingly living her best life in London to the untrained eye. In fact, for all three, their lives look admirably well-oiled to the outside world. They have it better than their fore-sisters, but somehow still feel like failures.

Cate is a new mother imprisoned by the humdrum and isolation of her new maternal duties and a new house in Kent, and her husband Sam isn't proving to be the support she needs.

Hannah, arguably the most successful of them all in terms of career, is (just about) married to Nathan, and trying for a child of her own.

The realisation that life might not bestow on to them the things they want the most is starting to settle.

And, after adulting and striving and self-actualising just as they are supposed to, this realisation comes as quite the paper cut.

There is impressive flesh on each character's story, and readers are likely to relate to Hannah's struggle to conceive, and Cate's challenges as a new parent.

Still, it's Lissa that might prove the most endearing to readers.

Her ambition has been ground down, and her own sense of failure an Achilles heel, but she remains ebullient enough to climb back on the horse time and time again. Amid the auditions and the modelling for life drawing classes, she still hopes to make her mother Sarah proud.

It's a tough hill to climb: the previous generation to Lissa's -Sarah included - have no real idea how or why these women have somehow squandered the choices and benefits that they once fought so hard for.

Hope's contemporary fiction debut (she has written two well-received historical fiction novels previously) has been described as doing for female friendships what Sally Rooney's Normal People did for romantic relationships. There's an element of truth there.

Hope is certainly astute, grasping the nuances of female interiority to furnish the reader with a meaty, honest and emotional read.

Yet for all of Expectation's observational power and pleasantness, it could benefit from a pinch more of the tautness that made Rooney's novel such a runaway hit.

But no matter. If you've had a friendship ebb and flow, or fretted about how or what you are going to be when you grow up, there is plenty to enjoy in Hope's forensic look at female interiority.

And even with plenty to mull over, Expectation is the sort of satisfying read that the reader can gulp down in a delicious afternoon or two.

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