Most of us like fiction that holds up a mirror to our own lives. Singletons read Helen Fielding, dads Nick Hornby, and middle-aged women the kind of hard-core thrillers in which innocent victims get sliced up into tiny pieces. To enjoy Douglas Kennedy's latest novel it helps either to have gone through a sticky divorce, or fallen for a creative type with a foreign accent.
Although this is his first novel set in London, the Manhattan-born Kennedy is no stranger to mid-Atlantic confusion. Primarily about marital meltdown and first-time parenthood, A Special Relationship also says much on the misunderstandings that occur when two people speak the same language but miss each other's vital signs. The serious-minded heroine, Sally Goodchild, is a 37-year-old American journalist. Based in Cairo, she meets and falls in love with fellow foreign correspondent, the sardonic and clever Tony Hobbs. Sally is seduced by his khaki shorts and repressed English ways. Mid-affair, she becomes pregnant.
The couple move to London, settle in Putney and, after a difficult birth, become parents to a son, Jack. Tony retreats to an upstairs room to write a novel, Sally chows down the anti-depressants, and within a year the ill-matched pair are slugging out a custody battle in the high court.
Kennedy's previous novel, The Pursuit of Happiness, which also had a female narrator, told the story of two generations of New York women - the kind of gals who sip highballs while holding the front page. Sally is of the same stable, minus the Hepburnesque sarkiness. Her earnestness and professionalism work as an effective foil to Tony and his casual betrayals. It's her cub-reporter enthusiasm that makes later struggles with motherhood, depression, and the most supercilious consultants the NHS has to offer, all the more convincing.
Kennedy's fiction - as befits an author of both thrillers and family sagas - can be a promiscuous affair, which requires some swift gear changes en route. The book's thrillerish opening in Cairo, for example, is a hackneyed comic-strip of media heroics and important deadlines. It may well turn away readers who would go on to enjoy the middle section: an empathetic account of a woman in the throes of post-natal horrors. The closing courtroom drama, however, will keep both parties happy (not to mention blubbing) like they haven't since Kramer vs Kramer.
Conjuring up the fabric of a life - the details of his characters' jobs, the contents of their fridges and local property prices - is what Kennedy does best. Here his in-depth knowledge of everything from the English legal culture (with its West End divorce lawyers and jumped-up welfare officers) to the inner workings of the breast pump lend the novel a satisfyingly authentic edge. Kennedy's depiction of family court procedure is spot-on. Neither "literary" nor junky, this moral tale of Anglo-American misalliance will hold up a mirror to someone's life: with any luck not to yours.Reuse content