The Party by Elizabeth Day


published 2017


The Party 1



[Narrator Martin has won a scholarship to a public school]

My mother ignored the approved outfitters and uniform suppliers, seeking out instead the cheaper bargains in charity shops. As a result, my school jumpers were always faded and my PE shorts were never white enough and the Aertex shirts The Party2had immoveable off-yellow stains under each armpit. The smell of other people’s sadness lingered in the threads.

To this day I have a profound aversion to second-hand clothes. I can’t abide the new trend for ‘vintage’ outfits, the nipped-in 50s dresses sported by overweight ladies who live in east London running Scandinavian coffee shops and the rolled-up chinos favoured by bearded hipsters who work in digital marketing. I have a minimal wardrobed but I invest in key, tailored pieces that last. Although I can’t really afford it, I have my suits made to measure by Ben’s tailor, purely for the pleasure of knowing no-one else has ever shrugged their shoulders into my jacket.


commentary: A highly enjoyable book: the perfect holiday read. It has a lot of features that you recognize – an unreliable narrator (I loved the amazon reviewer who called him ‘a psychopathic Adrian Mole’), an unequal friendship between a golden boy and someone much less attractive, the framing device where we know something terrible happened at the Party of the title, a sour look at the class system and the powerful glitterati in modern Britain. The timeframe jumps about, and you have to check each chapter to see when and where it takes place, and who is the narrator.

All this was very familiar, but for me that meant I just settled in to enjoy it. Of course you don’t warm to the main character, and you know that the aristocratic Ben (how did he get to stand for Parliament with his title?) is shallow and worthless, you can even guess what Martin’s hold is on the family. But it was great fun to watch it all unfold with many a wince-and cringe-making moment. Lucy – really the only major female character – was very intriguing, and I thought deserved more of her own story. The scene where she interrupts a discussion of modern American literature was the most biting bit of social satire in the book.

The two main men meet at school, where effortlessly successful Ben helps out the unpopular scholarship boy Martin. Their friendship continues on through the rest of their lives until, in middle age, the party of the title brings its own showdown. There are homoerotic undertones in their relationship, though it is never clear that Martin has any good points. Initially I thought Ben was just good-natured enough to be kind to another boy, but nothing in the rest of his portrayal makes that seem likely. Was Martin in fact terribly sexy? Perhaps.

The scenario has echoes of Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley, Charles & Sebastian in Brideshead Revisited, the works of Alan Hollinghurst, even The Great Gatsby, but has its own intricacies and plot turns. And as with Highsmith, how very interesting to get a female take on this storyline.

The picture of the schoolboys is from the New South Wales archives.

The suit poster is from Next, a very fine retailer but probably not where Martin or Ben get their clothes from.














Comments

  1. Moira, it's not often that I don't warm up to the main character, though that's what is happening with my current read, a spy fiction by British author and former MI5 director Stella Rimington.

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    1. I've always wondered what her books were like, I'll look forward to hearing your verdict before deciding whether to read her.

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  2. Just from the little you've shared, Moira, I can see that this one's got a solid look at social class. Sour, perhaps, but still... And when the unreliable narrator is done well, that can work quite well. This definitely sounds like a book one can be drawn into, even if one doesn't particularly like the main character.

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    1. It is very enjoyable, Margot, and very funny also, but with some very thought-provoking ideas and moments. Ideal book!

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  3. I love that line "...other people's sadness lingered in the threads". When I was in primary school what clothes my mum couldn't sew for us were also bought from second hand stores and I do share this character's continuing horror of them...though have not ever expressed it so succinctly or accurately.

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    1. The spousal unit's family was burned out (twice). Their church provided used clothes for them contributed by parishioners. Of course the other children teased them at school for wearing cast-off clothes.

      He won't buy anything used.

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    2. yes, I can quite see in those circumstances the lure of vintage isn't really going to win out. It's always tough on children...

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    3. My mom put a lot of effort into making our clothes when we were little -- and before she went back to work fulltime. But I was thankful that we had a school uniform (it was a Catholic school -- nothing posh at all), because we never had the stylish clothes. I can still remember particular items of clothing that were the 'in' things to wear in elementary school that I never got to own. It definitely had an impact on my (over)buying habits later in life.

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    4. I think it takes all of us a long time to get over what happened to us in our early schooldays - the effects linger on. I remember wearing 'boys' shoes, and being teased, but I was such a tomboy I actually liked that idea, so the teasing rolled off me... Lucky.

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    5. Oh, no! That drudged up a long forgotten memory. My mom made me wear black wingtips when I was in first grade. I HATED them. HATED. When I was an angel in our Christmas pageant my mom spray-painted my beginning-to-get-shabby Sunday shoes gold. I LOVED them. So much I wore them home on the day of the pageant and put my much despised wingtips in the box with my angel costume. I dropped the box once in the playground and didn't notice one of the shoes dropping out. The next day since I didn't have my school shoes my mom made wear my bedroom slippers. A lesson for being careless? That's how I remember it. Then, at our morning assembly they announced a shoe found in the yard. Everybody laughed, and I was too embarrassed to go up and claim it, so my elder sister had to get it for me. So, my vanity caused a whole cycle of anger and embarrassment. Glad you were able to shrug it off. You probably would have loved my wingtips!

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    6. Oh my goodness, what a story. Worthy of a children's book... I really WAS lucky compared with that.

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    7. Heh. I'm well known as the grudge-holder in the family.

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    8. Not a Scorpio, too, are you? :-)

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    9. No, Libra, so very fair-minded. WHICH MEANS IF I HAVE A GRUDGE I AM IN THE RIGHT!

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  4. I really like that device of knowing that Something Terrible has happened, but not being told exactly what right away, just having it lurking underneath everything like a circling shark.
    And the idea of a psychopathic Adrian Mole could get a series, nowadays.
    'I'm profoundly in love with Pandora,
    Now I've buried her under the floor-a'

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    1. Oh that is brilliant, I love it! And yes: those 2 features (Adrian Mole and the to-be-revealed horror) would always sell a book to me.

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  5. Moirs - Let me try again. British boys attending public schools must have, perhaps still are, more conscious of schoolmates clothes than myself and my schoolmates at boarding school 50 years ago. I cannot recall anyone commenting or worrying about another's clothing. I would not have recognized new v. used. There was not much new clothing. What we had was worn but I knew not whether from personal use or someone else's use.

    With regard to the real anguish of commentators I wonder how many of those noticing new v. used were female. For my generation in Saskatchewan few guys paid enough attention to clothes to notice.

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    1. Moira - Sorry on the spelling of your name. I did not want to delete again and start a third time.

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    2. Don't worry about name Bill!
      Very interesting point: you may well be right and this would be more of an issue with girls. I'm thinking back to my own schooldays, and I wouldn't have known if someone else had secondhand stuff. But I do remember - we had shop-bought sweaters, but mothers could knit them if they wanted. I was always very glad my mother hadn't, I felt it made you stand out too much. But of course I would never ever have said something mean to the girls concerned...

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  6. I got a Ripley vibe from your description and definitely sounds intriguing. I also like the idea of a looming (from the past even) event shadowing everything in the book. Just finished Catriona McPherson's "House Tree Person," and it also had this something-bad-happened atmosphere. Enjoyed it a lot.

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    1. Oh good, glad you liked the Catriona book. And yes, very much in the Ripley mode - I always find that fascinating.

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  7. The extract is very good, and it sounds like a good book. But not one that will make it into my piles of books for a few years.

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    1. Fair enough Tracy - I've read it for you!

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