Lesia Daria: Forty One
Eva Holden is one of those women of whom there are doubtless far too many nowadays – an intelligent, educated woman, stuck at home looking after the children while her husband is away all the time on business. Eva is somewhat different from many of those middle-class British women in that she is Polish (though with Ukrainian antecedents), married to an Englishman, Harry. But in this respect she is like all those other British women (and women from all over the world) stuck at home, having given up job and career for her family. She and Harry have devised a plan which they call the Plan. He is a lawyer but his law firm requires him to spend most of his time in Eastern Europe. The advantages of this are, firstly, that he can earn more money and, secondly, he can avoid (most) UK tax. They can save up. He can do well in his job and then become a partner back in the UK and they can all live happily ever after. But, of course, life is not so simple. She knows and he knows that if he does make partner and comes back to the UK, he will be required to still work very long hours to maintain his status.
Eva and Harry have two children – Christophe aged four and Katya aged seven. They have a nice house in Surrey. Much of the early part of the book is concerned with Eva struggling with looking after the children – illness and school problems – and permanently waiting for Harry to phone. When he does, they often row, starting with a row over the curtains which she wants to replace. As well as feeling cut off, there is another issue she faces, what politicians in the UK have called the squeezed middle, i.e. those in the middle class who feel they have been hit by rising taxes and costs and lack of state support and are struggling to keep up. Harry and Eva, for example, are very much concerned with school quality, as are many other British middle-class people. Do they accept the often poor quality of the state schools or do they send the children to private schools, at great cost? This perpetual striving for what is better, which often means things people do not really need, is cleverly shown with Harry’s sister Tilly, who is always complaining about being broke, but spends a fortune on various medical and cosmetic treatments, skiing holidays and, during the course of this book, an extension to the house. But Eva also makes another comparison – with her Polish parents and Ukrainian grandparents, who obviously made do with a lot less but seemed just as happy, if not more so. She also makes a comparison with her elderly next door neighbor, Miss Miriam, as she is known, who is clearly in need of support but tends to receive it only from Eva and not from her own family, even though her daughter, Emma, lives not far away.
However, there is a fly in the ointment. Before meeting Harry, she had had two other affairs. Her first, when she was in Paris, was with Xavier. When she went back to Poland, there was Adam, by whom she got pregnant. She returned to France and it was Xavier who helped her get an abortion. He later met and married Carole. He now reappears on the scene, first by email and then in person. He is clearly not happy in his marriage and clearly wants an affair (though, apparently, not much more) with Eva. She is not surprisingly tempted. We follow their trans-Channel relationship. Harry does not help his case by inviting her and the children to Paris, where he is having a meeting, arranging dinner in the hotel and then not turning up. At Christmas they go off to Poland, to spend time with Eva’s family and who should pop up but Adam? She has a drink with him and learns that he has left the cult he had been involved with and is married with children. But still wants her. Then, as sometimes happens in real life and often happens in novels, stuff happens, much of it bad, which changes her life and changes the direction of the novel.
But, at least one of the main themes of the novel remains this issue of whether we are happy with more money, more stuff, a bigger house and so on. What are we pursuing these opportunities for? You work more hours, we have these goals, but for what? Just to buy more stuff? A bigger house? Better holidays? Isn’t that pointless when we’re not even together most of the time? Harry does not take this comment by Eva well. But is the solution going back to the past? For having parted with Adam, then Xavier, they both reappeared, like lost socks, whose pairs remain mysteriously elsewhere. But Harry is always away. Talking is pointless when everything’s the same, all these problems insurmountable for being unseen, undefined and amorphous things that lurk after every positive emotion evaporates.
When I first started reading this novel, I had my doubts as to whether it was going anywhere, apart from the story of an intelligent, educated woman, stuck at home with the kids and flirting with the idea of having a fling with an ex-boyfriend. However, Daria, while sticking to this theme and the idea of the middle-class struggling to keep up with the lifestyle they would like to have, moves the book beyond that. The postscript of the novel is a quote from Montaigne: The great and glorious masterpiece of man is how to live with a purpose. (Actually the quote is Notre grand et glorieux chef d’œuvre, c’est vivre à propos, which might best be translated as Our great and glorious masterpiece is to live with a purpose, i.e. without the how, but let’s not quibble.) Eva, like many of us, is struggling to find a purpose in life, beyond the obvious one of immediate family. She complains to Xavier about what she calls the randomness and it is this struggle with both randomness and lack of purpose that steers Eva away from what she wants to be, and causes her to somewhat lose her bearings during this book. It is also this struggle that makes this book a most interesting novel and one definitely worth reading.
First published 2015 by Matador