When cool new student Philippa-call-me-Pip Foxton decided she was her new best friend it transformed Stephanie Amstell’s life- formerly invisible and destined to a life of suburban mediocrity, she was now popular and interesting, and she had the confidence to go with it. It was a change that Steph would forever be grateful for.
Thirty years later Steph and Pip’s roles have reversed –Steph’s happily married to hard-working Julian and following their life plan; they moved to the country to raise their three boys, and Steph’s days area busy whirl of perfection creation. Pip, however, is a single mother,abandoned after three years of fighting and affairs by the father of her only child and virtually penniless. Mired in depression, furious at her cheating and untraceable ex, and lost for purpose, it’s only thanks to Steph’s emotional and financial support that she and Chloe are okay.
Steph loves her life, and she loves her best friend, but the one-way street is starting to get old. Why can’t Pip take some responsibility? She knew the meeting Steph encouraged her to make with a buyer from Selfridge’s would mean she couldn’t drop Chloe off at school, for example, but waited until morning to ask Steph to do it for her.
For Pip, so overwhelmed by anger, grief, shock and betrayal for the past two years, just functioning has been hard, but she’s ready for a change. In one day,, thanks to a combination of her artistic ability and chance, she not only gets a commission from the buyer but also meets a man – a man different from those she’s been attracted to in the past, a man who could possibly be her future. And on the same day Steph’s life changes forever, when she discovers her husband is having an affair.
About Last Night was engaging from a psychological perspective, but I was disappointed by its predictability – while there were certainly a couple of small surprises, but no twists and for the most part I guessed what was going to happen early on. For example, as soon as I read about how Steph replaced one set of perfectly functional crockery for another, and how Julian didn’t notice this or other domestic changes, I knew that she was replacing fulfilment and happiness for consumerism and the pursuit of a perfect-appearing life, and that Julian was having an affair.
There’s a lot of description and not a lot of dialogue, and the shifting third person perspective (primarily Steph, Pip, Julian and the thoroughly unlikeable mistress, Kirsten) allowed for different points of view but reduced my engagement.
This certainly isn’t to say that I disliked About Last Night, but I would have liked to be surprised more often. Certainly the plot device of “incomplete information leading to (contextually believable but avoidable) misunderstanding that changes everything” was disappointing, though a reflection of a number of issues.
There were several things that I really liked, from the idea of having a day (or perhaps just a meal) where every food begins with the same letter (“Chocolate, cherries, croissants, cake, crisps. Cashew nuts.”), to a really lovely scene that retrospectively redeemed Julian for me - experiencing the familiar symptoms of pregnancy after three boys, Steph doesn’t take a test and attributes minor differences between this and her previous pregnancies to it finally being a girl. She and Julian discuss names, focusing on Dairy, Rose and Lily. Sudden, crippling pain brings the unwelcome revelation that, rather than “growing a beautiful baby girl” Steph has ovarian cysts and will be unable to conceive again. The response of everyone around her is that there wasn’t a baby, and thus no need to grieve; Julian takes her to the beach, where he’s laid out a picnic feast par excellence, complete with Krug to toast themselves,and a bouquet of roses, daisies and lilies.
Kirsten is portrayed throughout the book as shallow, self-centred and immature; I was disappointed to have her redeemed in the final pages, by the love of a good man who's inexplicably interested in her. It was almost as though an editor told Parks she couldn't have an unwrapped end, and it didn't fit with the rest of her character arc - had that been the intent all along I think better ground work could have been laid.
Certainly I kept reading About Last Night 'til the end, and it's not a bad choice if you're going on holiday and want something moderately more substantial than your average beach book, but that won't make you work. I just wish there'd been a little less predictability about the whole thing. - Alex