A death in the family rarely brings out the best in people – even the deceased Jonathan Coulter planned for his death meticulously, leaving nothing to chance. His will states that his three adult children must decide between them how to dispose of his estate. If they cannot come together over their inheritance, then they risk losing it. But Liv, Noah and Chloe never agree on anything. And now, with only one weekend to overcome their rivalry, tensions begin to rise. Why has Jonathan left the decision to them? And why has he made no mention of his new partner, Megan, or the children’s mother, Eloise? If he wanted to teach them a lesson from beyond the grave, what is it? And can the siblings put their differences aside for long enough to learn it? A powerful novel about love and loss, and what we truly pass on to our children.
Following their initial shock when they were told about their father’s will, in which the only specific instruction he left was for a lump sum to be given to Lisa, his carer, Liv, Noah and Chloe realise that, having been appointed joint executors, they have no option but to find a way to act cooperatively if they are to fulfil his final wishes. In order to reach an outcome on which they can all agree, they decide they need to spend a weekend together at their childhood home, the house in which a grieving Megan is still living, having moved in with their father five years earlier.
As the story unfolds it exposes layer upon layer of old rivalries and resentments between the three siblings, feelings which, it soon becomes clear, have continued to affect their behaviour and interactions as adults. Liv, the eldest, has a successful career and has always been the responsible, well-organised one; Noah appears to be wary of commitment, selfish, competitive and instinctively rebellious, whilst Chloe is the over-indulged youngest, who still has no idea what she wants to do with her life and, for a few months has been living back in the family home. As the weekend progresses, all their juvenile feelings are resurrected, often erupting in a disturbingly visceral way, as they struggle to reach agreement on how to comply with their father’s wishes and settle his estate.
Not included in any of their discussions, in fact, with her presence barely even acknowledged, Megan is expected to cater for her late partner’s offspring, forced to be a reluctant witness to their endless squabbling whilst struggling with her own grief over the death of her partner. Their ongoing resentment of her as the blameworthy ‘other woman’ in their parents’ divorce, shows itself in myriad ways in their interactions with her, perhaps never more so when they invite their mother to join them for the weekend – although she at least does have the grace to stay in a local hotel!
I found this to be an exceptionally well-executed exploration of family dynamics in the aftermath of a death, a time when emotions are heightened and people are at their most vulnerable. I think that through her credible, well- developed characters, the author captured the complex interrelationships and ambivalences which exist within families and how, when faced with any sort of crisis, previously buried resentments and rivalries bubble to the surface, demanding to be addressed before any rational decision-making can take place. I was impressed throughout by her empathetic portrayal of her characters’ rapidly fluctuating emotional reactions, their shifting alliances, the conflicts they each felt as they struggled to reconcile personal expectations with a desire to ‘do the right thing’. Her masterly use of a third person narrative enabled me to very quickly feel caught up in the intense, painful rawness of their emotions. Throughout the story I felt my sympathies and alliances shifting as she gradually revealed their personal histories, demonstrating how their experiences and their firmly-established roles in the family were influencing not only their reactions to their father’s death, but also to the fundamentally-contentious and ambiguous nature of his will – at times I think I probably felt as angry with him as everyone else did about the power he was continuing to exert! I thought that the resolutions for each of the characters, as well as the final decisions about the dispersal of Jonathan’s estate, were entirely credible and liked the fact that these contained surprises which enabled me, even in the closing pages of the story, to gain extra insights into the characters’ behaviour.
A theme which ran through the story explored the emotional and physical effects on people caring for someone with a terminal illness, particularly as the ‘patient’ becomes increasingly dependent on carers to attend to the most basic of physical needs. I think the author very perceptively captured how the relationship between Megan and Jonathan was affected by his illness and the increasing stresses she faced as his physical condition worsened. The author brought similar insights to her exploration of the impact Lisa, the part-time carer employed to help during the final months of his life, had on both Megan and Jonathan. Her descriptions of Megan feeling overwhelmed by the relentless pressure, the sense of guilt she felt about needing help, as well as the eventual rivalry she felt about sharing his care with an outsider, captured many of the complex, ambivalent feelings experienced by carers.
Although most of the ‘action’ takes place in the increasingly tense, stifling and claustrophobic atmosphere of the family home, there is occasional relief from this when the characters venture out into the bracing air of Scarborough. These outings not only bring back some happier memories, but also enable some shifts in perspective which, in turn, lead to some changes in behaviour. I know the town well so was delighted to be allowed to ‘revisit’ it, to see its essential ‘character’ so evocatively portrayed – and to be reminded that a walk along the front really can do much to blow away some emotional cobwebs!
I’ve read only one of Caroline Bond’s previous novels (One Split Second) but it seems to me that what she excels at is her ability to capture the nuances of family relationships, warts and all, thus enabling her readers to identify with the struggles her characters face – as well as to make allowances for all the things they get wrong as they attempt to resolve them! I imagine it would be all but impossible for anyone to read this book without imagining how they and their relatives would behave in similar circumstances.
The explorations of loss, grief, how families cope when under intense pressure, the exposure of lies and acts of betrayal, the struggle between a sense of personal ‘entitlement’ and a recognition of the need to make decisions which are ethically, and morally, right, the power of family bonds etc, are all themes which would make this novel an ideal choice for book groups.
With thanks to Readers First and the publisher for an ARC in exchange for an honest review.
Reviewed by Linda Hepworth
Published by Corvus, 1st April 2021
ISBN: 978-183895-282-2 Hardback