Elizabeth Day: The Party
Published By: Fourth Estate
Buy it here
What the Blurb Says:
‘As the train pressed on, I realised that my life was in the process of taking a different direction, plotted according to a new constellation. Because, although I didn’t know it yet, I was about to meet Ben and nothing would ever be the same again.’
Martin Gilmour is an outsider. When he wins a scholarship to Burtonbury School, he doesn’t wear the right clothes or speak with the right kind of accent. But then he meets the dazzling, popular and wealthy Ben Fitzmaurice, and gains admission to an exclusive world. Soon Martin is enjoying tennis parties and Easter egg hunts at the Fitzmaurice family’s estate, as Ben becomes the brother he never had.
But Martin has a secret. He knows something about Ben, something he will never tell. It is a secret that will bind the two of them together for the best part of 25 years.
At Ben’s 40th birthday party, the great and the good of British society are gathering to celebrate in a haze of champagne, drugs and glamour. Amid the hundreds of guests – the politicians, the celebrities, the old-money and newly rich – Martin once again feels that disturbing pang of not-quite belonging. His wife, Lucy, has her reservations too. There is disquiet in the air. But Ben wouldn’t do anything to damage their friendship.
What I Say:
This Summer, I have been lucky enough to read a stack of brilliant books, all of them captivating, all consuming and ones that you want to read over and over.
The Party is one of those books.
I honestly read it in two days (much to the consternation of my two boys who had to make do with sandwiches ‘It’s Summer, call it another picnic boys’!).
Martin and Ben have been unlikely friends since they met at school. Martin knows a secret about Ben and as a result, even though their friendship has become strained over the years, Ben is aware that Martin needs to be kept close to avoid any damage to his reputation and his burgeoning political ambitions.
The action in the novel centres around the events on Ben’s 40th birthday party. We first meet Martin being interviewed by the police, as they attempt to determine what happened on the night in question. We learn that he is married to Lucy, that they met whilst working on a newspaper, and she is well aware of the intense relationship between Martin and Ben. She seems to understand that Martin is in love with Ben, and although he may be fond of her, he does not love her.
The novel seamlessly moves between Martin’s police interview, Lucy’s journal and the day of the party. We learn about Martin’s personal life as we move forward through the police interview – how he had a strained relationship with his mother and that he didn’t really fit into school. Martin’s standing in the school is only due to his friendship with the popular Ben, something he is well aware of and uses to his advantage.
We believe that Martin is the quiet loner, and I genuinely felt sorry for him as the underdog in the relationship as he struggles to keep up with Ben, who easily moves through life with the boys wanting to be him and the girls wanting to be near him.
Suddenly, Elizabeth’s powerful writing shifts our pity for Martin to disbelief as she chillingly describes his extremely unsettling behaviour, which quietly sets the sinister undertone for Martin’s personality as the novel progresses. His school adopts an injured bird which they decide to nurse it back to health. Martin is well aware of the effect the bird has had on bringing the school together, but calmly, methodically and with an eerie rationale, he takes the bird into the woods and kills it. His rationale is that the bird cannot be saved and does not understand the childrens empathy towards it.
Running parallel with Martin’s police interview, we also learn about Lucy and her life before Martin and their marriage. Through Lucy’s personal journals, we learn how her previous unhappy relationships have shaped how she sees herself and how she has set her expectations for love accordingly. As Martin continues to be interviewed by the police, he comes to realise although he has not been in love with Lucy, she has unwaveringly loved him.
It is at that point he decides to tell them the truth about the devastating secret he has over Ben.
“The gratitude would bind us together, I would save him from himself. It will be our secret and he would spend the rest of his life paying for it”.
Martin’s longstanding devotion to Ben and the Fitzmaurice family ensures that he does not divulge the devastating secret to anyone as he clings desperately to any sign of recogntion from Ben, As the years pass, Ben starts to distance himself from Martin, an act that Martin struggles to understand. As the reader, we are well aware that the power has shifted, that Martin is now the person who has to be kept in Ben’s favour to maintain the privileged existence he has so long enjoyed.
As the novel speeds towards The Party of the title, the gulf between Ben and Martin seems to be ever wider and more precarious, existing only on social niceties and small talk. We are made aware of the sneering disdain that Serena, Ben’s wife has for Martin and Lucy, and that she merely tolerates them, keeping them sweet to maintain her comfortable status quo.
As the two couples uncomfortably circle each other, Ben and Serena reveal that they feel for Ben to move forward into politics that they need to distance themselves from undesirable relationships – such as Martin and Lucy. This revelation leads to an act of violence which adds a further twist to the entangled lives of Martin and Ben, and one from which no one escapes unscathed.
The chilling end of the novel, with all the main characters still coming to terms with the events of the party is one which resonates and unsettles. After the night has passed and the characters move through the rest of their lives, we see Martin writing about his life.
Just when we think we are going to leave Martin to his memoirs, it is implied that he does something without thinking and conscience that made me stop, flick back through the pages, and re read the last chapter.
The Party is without a doubt a fast paced, thrilling read, that picks the reader up and catapults us along with Martin, Ben and all the secrets and lies that ultimately fracture their lives forever. The characterisation of Martin is a subtle and unsettling portrayal of a man on the edge, with a disturbing undertone of menace that chills you to the bone.
Elizabeth Day’s novel is not only an engaging, witty and a powerful study of love and friendship, but is also an astute depiction of the lengths a person will go to to live the life they believe they deserve.
I really loved it and hope that you will too.