Sunday Herald: Seeking adventure

Sunday Herald: Seeking adventure

So, I have not read Sophie Kinsella’s earlier chick-lit works, but am aware of her popularity in the field of contemporary fiction (read, the Shopaholic series). However, I was never enthused enough to explore her writings. And then came the chance to complete my education. Not having read anything by her ensured that I tackle her latest offering Surprise Me with an open and clear mind with no preconceived judgement whatsoever. And she surprised me! 

Most readers of Surprise Me will be astonished at their own lives being reflected in this story of a modern-age married couple. Two kids: check. Double income: check. Comfortable home: check. Totally in love and sync with each other: check. So much in sync with each other that they complete each other’s sentences or almost mind-read one another! 

Sylvie and Dan are the quintessential young couple who have been happily married and are proud parents to a set of five-year-old twin daughters. They are so in tune with one another that they can guess even the dish the other one is going to order at their anniversary dinner! Basically, they are comfortably married with no surprises left in their secure life. But wait, surprises spring in the unlikeliest of places and, in their case, the startling and alarming shocker stuns them at their doctor’s office where they go for their annual health check. The good news is that they are healthy as healthy can be and, according to the good doctor’s prognosis, will live beyond 100, thanks to their super-healthy state and good genes.

Which should be good news for most people. And it is for Sylvie and Dan too, the thought of living together for 68 more years. But misgiving and iffiness creeps in. Almost seven decades with the same person with the same predictability? The same routine, the same chores, the same dinners, the same … everything? Doubts rear their snaky heads in their minds. To avoid the boredom of the impending 68 years of togetherness, they decide to give each other surprises to stave off possible inertia and boredom. Well, one person’s surprise can be another one’s horror. And that is what happens with them when their surprises to each other fall flat and even give rise to suspicion and insecurity. Do they really know each other as well as they thought they did?

Their experiments and attempts at surprises keep rolling with hilarity and conviction as long as they are about the two protagonists. Confusion sets in when the story starts meandering and threatens to lose its way to other subplots. Is it about the two of them or the relationship between father and daughter? From what was a real ‘I know the feeling’ kind of tale for the reader very nearly turns into a forced and affected narrative, almost causing the downfall of an enjoyable story.

For most of the story, Kinsella manages to hold interest, especially because the events and incidents strike a chord in the readers. Anyone who has had kids will identify with the general knowledge that parents of young kids possess: “1. Annabel Karmel’s recipe for chicken fingers, 2. the theme tune to Peppa Pig and 3. what day the girls have swimming.” Or the fears they have for their little ones: “I can’t bear the idea that one day my girls will know about all the shit that the world really involves, and they’ll have to deal with it, and I won’t be able to fix it for them.” Or modern child-rearing with its “positive, feminist-role-model” dissemination. Aah, the toils of parenthood!

 Kinsella could be a present-day relationship counsellor doling out modern aphorisms. “How many divorces are caused by the word ‘Nothing’…I think this could be a very interesting statistic.” And that’s what happens in the lives of our poster couple who are “stuck with Dan saying ‘nothing’” and Sylvie “seething and the air all crackly with static resentment”. Yes, most of us go through that static resentment one time or more in our lives. (‘More’ is more like it!). “Sometimes I wonder how we all get anything done as a human race, there are so many misunderstandings and sore points and people taking umbrage all over the place.” Touché! Couples in the story have a “crackly, invisible veil of just … tension. It’s not that they don’t smile and laugh and make jokes. But everything is so barbed. There are so many little flashes of resentment and simmering fury. It’s exhausting.” An old married woman advises young Sylvie to beware of her husband’s retirement. ‘‘Don’t let him in the house,” the wise one says.” They need interests. Travel… Travel separately…. Find girlfriends” to travel with. Sage advice. Kinsella is a modern day relationship seer!

But the tale flounders when old secrets come tumbling out. The narrative seems to lose its reality and meanders along in a somewhat farfetched and farcical manner. One plods along hoping the narrative will regain its earlier deliciousness with the eccentric cast and their witty conversations. Unfortunately, it doesn’t, and you are left with a bit of dissatisfaction at the denouement. Which is not to say you can’t enjoy this. It’s a fun entertaining read and you’ll still be surprised!