With The Party, Elizabeth Day seems to tell the usual tale of the troubled hanger-on and the privileged and entitled (and titled) wealthy class, but she complicates it in the end in ways that I found quite thrilling.
Martin Gilmour is that hanger-on whose character was damaged by the emotional as well as economic poverty of his childhood. It’s possible his mother loved him, she certainly sacrificed to send him to the best schools she could afford and sought out opportunities for him, but he did not feel her love and she fed his self-loathing. A scholarship student with poor social skills, he found his sustenance in the friendship of Ben Fitzmaurice, one of those privileged scions of wealth and pedigree for whom everything comes easily and whose family welcomed him.
Lucy is his long-suffering wife who sees him more clearly than he thinks and loves him anyway. She is the most misunderstood of the characters in The Party . Everyone thinks she is weak and frumpy when really, she is wearing protective cover and choosing Martin because he does not ask too much of her. She is not weak, she is recovering from trauma.
Of course, there are also Ben and Serena, two boring plastic people whose narrative we are blessedly spared. Some might think Martin is sociopathic because he deliberately sought out Ben’s friendship and thanks to a cruel act as a child, killing a wounded bird the school was rescuing. Martin himself seems to think he’s quite a nasty piece of work and never pretends to be a good guy, he carefully inculpates himself in a sustained strategic campaign for Ben’s friendship.
The story opens at the local police station where Martin is being questioned. The narrative skips from there to Martin telling his backstory with Ben and Lucy sharing her experiences at an in-patient mental treatment facility. We surmise something happened at the party…and in time we learn what it was, but first we also learn how much Martin has sacrificed for Ben, how he has been rewarded and how thoroughly despicable Ben and Serena can be in their narcissistic obliviousness to others.
It’s risky writing a story with unsympathetic characters, but Elizabeth Day succeeds. In fact, by the end, I was thoroughly in sympathy with Martin and Lucy. The truth is revealed slowly and the party incident resolves itself, becoming much less than it seems at first, but it’s a great pretext for unwinding this friendship that has so despoiled Martin’s life even though he thought it was his great good fortune.
The ending with the cat also made me wonder how much of Martin’s bad character was a result of expectations and once freed from his mother’s opinion, Ben’s opinion, and his own obsessive love for Ben, he was able to find his more humane self. It makes me wonder about his recitation of killing Sammy the bird, while he ascribes his act to jealousy, there are hints that it could have been disgust with prolonging the suffering of a wounded bird – which at first light seems like rank self-justification, but later, when all is said and done and Martin stops living down to everyone’s low expectations, maybe it could be true.
And yes, Martin does a terrible thing, but it was unconsidered, an act of loving generosity to a friend who could never understand that kind of sacrifice and who misunderstood it from the beginning as opportunistic and grasping.
That’s why The Party works so well. There’s the question of how much Martin’s narrative is colored by his own self-loathing which for most of his life he has masked with intellectual arrogance. The story leaves us wondering…long after the last sentence is read and that makes it a good book.
The Party will be released August 15th. I received an e-galley from the publishers through NetGalley.
- The Party at Hachette Book Group
- Elizabeth Day author site