Site icon BookerTalk

Other People Manage by Ellen Hawley — learning to live again

The publisher’s blurb describes Other People Manage as “the kind of novel that only someone who has lived enough of life could write — frequently funny, at times almost unbearably moving, but above all extraordinarily wise.”

It’s certainly “moving” and “wise” in its treatment of relationships and grief. But it’s not a novel I would describe as “funny”; there wasn’t anything in the narrative I can recall as being witty or droll let alone laugh aloud.

What we get instead is a quiet contemplative novel about a loving relationship and the void created when death brings it to an end.

Marge and Peg meet at a coffee house in Minneapolis in the late 1970s (strangely it’s a coffee house where there is also dancing). An instantaneous attraction is cemented during three days they spend together, followed by a realisation their destiny is to share the rest of their lives together.

They live as a couple for twenty years, navigating the tragic demise of a former lover as well as the kind of everyday challenges that confront every relationship. And then one day Peg is no longer there and Marge has to learn how to cope on her own.

The story is told in retrospect beginning with the period immediately after Peg’s death from cancer. It then traces the progress of their relationship, and the way they are drawn into the messy lives of Peg’s complicated family. I enjoyed how Marge captured the essence of Peg’s personality and the changing nature of their relationship:

I noticed that she [Peg] let the dishes pile up in her kitchen until she ran out of either plates or the space to stack them in, that if she turned the vacuum on and then off she thought the apartment was clean. Silly things. Human things. They didn’t turn me away from her but they settled me into a way of seeing her that didn’t ask her to be perfect.

Anyone who has been in a long-term relationship will be recognise some of the elements about the couple’s lives. Habits and mannerisms for example, that can be of no consequence at the start, become a source of irritation as the years progress. And so it is with this couple:

“… instead of getting closer we turned on each other […] We started with the usual stuff. I walked in the door and found Peg’s winter jacket on the floor and it didn’t charm me the way it had that first night. Or I found a half-empty cup of coffee stranded on the bathtub rim. Or else it was money… She spent money in a way that scared me…”

Marge’s honest reflections about their relationship made the narrative feel really authentic. Neither woman comes across as an artificial character created just for the purposes of making a point — they don’t have any particular talents or qualities that mark them out as remarkable. They are simply two fairly ordinary people getting through life in the way that most of us do (despite all the influencers and life-style gurus who would have us believe otherwise).

As Marge says: ” It may not be good enough but it’s what we have.“

Other People Manage is on even stronger ground when it deals with our response to grief. When the book opens, Marge is alone in the apartment feeling bewildered and untethered from the real world. She remembers that Peg, a psychotherapist, once explained that there are five “denial, bargaining , something else, something else, acceptance” as if just getting from step one to five is all it takes. Nothing in those stages fully describes the blankness, the emptiness that Marge now feels:

I half hope Peg left a whiff of herself behind, but after she stopped burning incense I never associated any particular smell with her. What I smell here is nothing more personal than cloth and staleness. The smell of Peg’s absence.

Other passages reflect a sense of regret for arguments and squabbles over petty things. If she could rewind the clock she would do things differently but all she has left are memories and images of Peg that arrive unannounced “like slides projected on a blank wall, all light and no substance, pictures I can see but not hold, that I can’t call for and can’t keep'”

It’s hard to read about Marge’s deep sense of loss and not be moved. What struck me forcibly however was that these outpourings of grief for her dead partner come from a woman who had found it so hard to express her emotions when Peg was alive.

In one particular scene, Peg arrives home after a really bad day at work, the latest in a long series of days that have left her stressed and burned. She wants to share this with her partner but all Marge can do is just stand there and say nothing. Wouldn’t it be instinctive in Marge’s situation to want to make sympathetic noises or or give your partner a hug? But no, Marge stays silent, knowing she should say something but can’t.

My stomach clenched itself into a fist and if my ears had been able to do the same thing they would have. I leaned across the table , arms crossed and facing her but letting my eyes slide a few inches to the side, hiding from her as effectively as a kid covering her eyes and thinking she’s invisible.

Maybe I’m being unfair on Marge and she finds it difficult to express emotions. She does seem to often hold back from saying something — during one tough period in their relationship she reflects:

We weren’t arguing, but I’d straightened the house up after work and I could have recited the entire list of things Peg had left in strange places because she didn’t care how I felt. The only reason I didn’t was the fear that Peg would find something that was my fault and there we’d be again. So I sulked, waiting for her to notice how unhappy I was and change her entire way of being in the world.

Perhaps I’d have understood her better if we’d seen more of the relationship and more of Marge’s character. Often however it felt as though this was sidelined in favour of some less interesting stuff about the dysfunctional lives of Peg’s extended family. Marge gets drawn into these while Peg is alive and some connections remain after her death.

I could have done with less family stuff and more just about the dynamics of the Peg and Marge relationship. Otherwise Other People Manage was a perfectly readable and relatable novel.

Exit mobile version