Crouch, Julia - 'Cuckoo'
Rose is apparently happily ensconced in a large, renovated house in the country, complete with Aga, artist husband Gareth, and two children (both girls). Then, her old best friend, Polly, calls up asking to come and stay. Rose last saw Polly five years ago, and hasn't spoken to her for several months, but is shocked to learn that Polly's artist husband, Christos, was killed in a car accident two weeks ago. Polly has two children of her own (both boys), and was living with Christos in Greece. There are some deeply buried shared secrets from Rose's teenage years that Polly knows but Rose has never told her husband. Moreover, Rose considers Polly to be more attractive than her, and in addition, Polly has some sort of celebrity status from her days as a well-known singer songwriter. Already, the reader starts to feel that inviting Polly to stay may not be the best move for Rose.
However, Rose does invite Polly, despite her husband Gareth's objections. Gareth and Christos were best friends, and in fact, Rose only met Gareth after she had a brief fling with Christos first. But then Christos met and fell in love with Rose's friend Polly, and Rose married Gareth. But despite the friendship between Rose and Polly, and Gareth and Christos, the two couples were never very friendly, and Gareth claims not to like Polly. Fortunately, there is a separate annex to put Polly in, and Rose does her best to look after everyone by cooking, shopping, buying clothes for Polly's children, keeping her husband supplied with coffee as he works in his studio, taking the kids to school, and looking after her baby Flossie.
But the domestic bliss is short lived and slowly but surely it starts to fall apart. The first major disaster happens when Flossie becomes ill. On a picnic, Rose leaves Polly to look after Flossie, but when she comes back it's not clear whether or not Flossie might have swallowed some anti-depressants that Polly is taking. Flossie then becomes ill during the night and is whisked off to hospital for treatment. Rose stays with Flossie in hospital, leaving Gareth and Polly in charge at home, and starts to worry about what's going on at home while she is away (and not just about how tidy the kitchen is). She finds it hard to connect with other parents on the ward with their children, and doesn't find it amusing when Polly mentions to Rose that the nurses think she and Gareth are married, and Rose is the ex-wife.
When Rose and Flossie finally return home, things don't seem quite the way they used to be. Is Polly the cuckoo in the nest, trying to take Gareth away from Rose, or is she just imagining it? Rose's control over her life gradually weakens, and not only does Rose seem unable to stop what happens next, she also seems strangely detached from what is happening. The impression is one of watching a car crash in slow motion. Even though the most obvious thing to do us to make Polly leave, Rose seems unable to do so. This makes Rose almost complicit in what happens. In fact, it becomes clear that despite her apparently idyllic life before Polly, in truth, Rose is quite isolated. She doesn't appear to have any other women friends to confide in. Her husband spends long hours in his studio and they have had some quite big problems in their relationship in the past. Moreover, Rose is not always completely faithful to her husband. Polly appears to be destabilising Rose's marriage for her own ends, but would Rose's life have started to fall apart anyway given time?
Although it is clear that Rose's life will change forever after Polly comes to stay, it's not at all clear how. The novel is cleverly written to make the reader keep questioning the motives of the main characters, and guessing what will happen next. The ending is perhaps a little too predictable, but I was kept up reading way past my bedtime to reach it. This is a highly accomplished first novel.
Michelle Peckham, England