By Elizabeth Buchan
Viking, $26.95, 384 pages
The economic crisis unleashed in 2008 savaged millions of families around the world, leaving them in the wasteland of loss. In the saddest cases, people forfeited homes and pensions; others lost jobs and opportunities. The bereavement and adjustment that follow such losses are the subject of Elizabeth Buchan’s novel about the Nicholson family: “Separate Beds.”
The Nicholsons are affluent London professionals, so when the BBC fires Tom shortly before the stock-market cataclysm, the family never faces any serious likelihood that they will lose their home. Tom’s wife, Annie, is a hospital manager, and her salary is just about enough to keep them going, especially after they tell their daughter, Emily, they can no longer subsidize her attempts to write a novel; she must get paying work and contribute to the bills.
Nonetheless, things are genuinely tough for the Nicholsons. Five years previously, their daughter, Mia, had walked out, and has never been heard of again. Tom and Annie, already at odds over his workaholism, drifted out of emotional touch and now sleep in separate rooms.
Annie has soldiered on, keeping her house beautiful, cooking lovely meals, wearing terrific clothes, organizing family holidays in villas by the sea. Now she must cut all such extravagances. What’s more, when the crash tears into the stock portfolio that supports her mother-in-law, Hermione, in a retirement community, she has to move in with Tom and Annie. Then son Jake comes home with baby Maisie. His banker wife, Jocasta, has taken off for more profitable pastures, leaving Jake without the wherewithal to pay the mortgage. Just when Annie thinks that her house is bursting at the seams, Hermione adopts a stray dog.
One way and another, then, Ms. Buchan’s characters are dealing with a wide spectrum of losses: Tom has lost a job he loved; Hermione has lost her independence; Jake has lost his wife, and his business looks like it’s going under; Annie has long ago lost her sense that she and Tom have a good marriage.
But the sharpest pain in Annie’s life is Mia’s disappearance. During the first half of the novel, we get bits of the back story. We learn that Mia was a captivating child. She rejected her family only after a college boyfriend persuaded her that they were typical of the bourgeois types who had ruined the environment. This sounds like a youthful rebellion that will eventually pass. But Ms. Buchan hints that somehow Tom triggered her departure, and that’s when the Nicholson’s reeling marriage took its final body blow.
The mystery of Mia is one of the engines of “Separate Beds.” Auxiliary engines are the story of Jake and Maisie, and questions about Tom: Will he ever get a job? Will his gambling on the stock market pull the family into the red maw of debt? Can he and Annie recover the joy they once had?
But though the Nicholson family and its problems keep readers reading - at least most of the time - “Separate Beds” is a less than satisfying novel. The characters are sharply etched rather than deeply developed, so interest in them wavers. Annie is too unidimensionally good, and Emily is never convincing as a would-be novelist. Her snippiness with her family is less than endearing, too. Jake has more depth, and Ms. Buchan paints a charming portrait of Maisie, but Jake’s marriage is scarcely credible. One feels that Ms. Buchan racked her brains to invent Jake and Jocasta’s story to fill out her canvas.
The feeling that we are seeing the author tinker with the structure of the plot spreads more alarm and despondency when, two-thirds of the way through the novel, we are finally flashed back to the day that Mia stormed out. It’s an entirely believable scene, but why did we have to wait so long to learn the not-very-unusual details?
The answer lies in the absence of the serious investigation of the Nicholsons’ many losses. In lieu of this, Ms. Buchan drops mysterious hints about why and how Mia left. They serve no literary purpose except to excite attention. When Ms. Buchan finally reveals all, it’s a bit of a letdown. It’s hard not to ask why she couldn’t have given the full not-unusual details when Mia was first introduced.
The answer seems to be that some essential source of energy is lacking in this novel - a sense confirmed by the story lines that are abandoned. For example, a young man dies after not getting proper attention in the hospital where Annie works. She has to investigate what happened, and she thinks often of his bereaved parents, but eventually this story peters out.
Tom’s stock-market exploits are also tied up less than satisfactorily. Sometimes, too, the facts of the novel don’t marry. Emily is three years younger than the twins Mia and Jake, but their ages at any point in the story change inconsistently as Ms. Buchan flashes back and forth. This suggests that she does not really have them clearly in her sights.
The economic upheavals of the first decade of the 21st century have spawned all sorts of political, social and psychological problems - horrible for those who are suffering them, but a veritable treasury of material for novelists. Ms. Buchan has plucked a few gems from this trove so “Separate Beds” is not without interest, but a novel of family life such as this one could have plumbed deeper and into the miseries caused by our current economic woes.
Claire Hopley is a writer and editor in Amherst, Mass.