Late in the Day has the feel of some of my favourite mid-to-late 20th-century novels by writers like Nina Bawden and Penelope Lively, with its incisive observation of upper middle-class people with complex emotional lives.
Alex and Christine and Zachary and Lydia have been a close group since they first met in their twenties. As couples they have worked and played together ever since and their children, now grown up, are also friends. Alex and Christine are at home one night when they receive a call from a distraught Lydia. Zach is dead.
Zach’s sudden death upsets the delicate balance between the friends. No longer two stable couples, their friendship is tested. The narrative follows them both in the present, as their grief and Lydia’s demands put pressure on Alex and Christine, and back into their past, to see how they all became so close and the shifting balance of power between the different protagonists.
Late in the Day is about much more than their complicated romantic entanglements. Alex is the child of East European refugees, Zach the descendant of Russian Jews, Christine the child of a diplomat. Lydia’s background is quite different, she grew up in a pub (though that hardly makes her poor by most people’s standards).
The novel examines the ways the characters are at once privileged and outsiders, how the different types of power and prejudice – education, ethnicity, beauty, wealth and the elusive cultural capital that comes from art – interplay and define them.
Late in the Day is both aspirational and reassuring. Even though Christine is an artist, and Zach and Lydia own a beautiful gallery, and they all holiday in Venice, they still have the same messy emotional lives as everyone else.
This was what led to my ambivalence about the story. I loved the prose but felt unsure about whether I really cared about the story itself. That sense of the writing belonging to another period was also disconcerting. When, for example, someone sent a text message, it jarred and I had to remind myself that this was a contemporary novel.
I tend to like close, confined stories about relationships, dissection of the nuances of human behaviour, but in this case I wondered if it was just too small, why these people kept coming back to each other and didn’t just move on. They’re like Pat and Peggy in EastEnders. London’s a big place, can’t they just get some different friends?
To be fair, when events reach their crisis, Christine articulates something similar: that she will be expected to experience emotions and articulate thoughts that she isn’t sure she really has.
Late in the Day is the sort of book I would have loved as a teenager, when I was sure that the people in its pages could only exist in books, people who were worldly and witty and talked about art and philosophy at the dinner table rather than what’s on telly. Now I’ve lived a bit more I have no trouble believing in the characters. Still, I can’t help feeling Pat and Peggy kept it more real.