The exotic has its appeal, but the people in William Nicholson's domestic novel don't need to buy a Tuscan farmhouse or wade into the Ganges to find a higher existence. It's right there at the breakfast table or on the train to work.
Set in a southern English village over six days in 2000, The Secret Intensity of Everyday Life introduces a large cast of ordinary, middle class characters in short chapters, then connects them in a widening circle that, to the author's credit, seems as natural and weightless as a spider's web.
At the center are 40-somethings Henry and Laura Broad, parents of two children. They are comfortable, mostly happy, yet vaguely unsatisfied. A letter to Laura at breakfast one morning arrives like a thunderbolt: Her first love, Nick, unseen since college, has flown in from California. Their intense affair, along with the crushing pain he caused by walking away, is seared in her memory, making the return both unsettling and a little thrilling. Laura asks herself, "I have security, loyalty, kindness. Am I allowed excitement? Am I allowed ecstasy?"
Nicholson, also a playwright and screenwriter with Shadowlands and The Retreat from Moscow to his credit, has a fine ear for dialogue. His lucid, transparent style gives the reader easy access to the characters. In just a few deft strokes he captures the essence of the summer Laura and Nick spent together 20 years before: "The early evenings were the best time, better even than the nights. The farmhouse was set in a hollow, with only limited views from its deep windows, so they had dragged two armchairs out of the back parlor and up the grassy slope to the edge of a small wood. Here beneath the shade of an oak they sat and watched the sun descend over the hummocky hills and drank vermouth and talked in a drifting inconsequential sort of way. The chairs were side by side, close enough to reach out and touch each other. The evenings were warm. No one else ever passed down the long unmade track that led to their hidden valley."
The return of the old flame and Laura's response is one of several suspenseful strands that Nicholson teases out slowly and cinematically as the characters intersect and confront life-altering decisions. The narrative gathers momentum with nothing more extraordinary to sustain it than the death of dog, a trip to the opera, a parent-teacher conference or an outing to buy a dress. One character's simple possession of a button is made, for example, into something hauntingly sad.
"Beauty lies not in the thing seen but in the quality of the seeing and that comes rarely," Henry Broad muses. Open your eyes to everyday life, the story suggests, and you may be startled, even exhilarated, perhaps devastated.
In this novel Nicholson puts everything plainly on the table: doubts, motivations, desires. You will search in vain for irony or a single smirk. You will find instead a tremendous sincerity. If that comes off as a little old-fashioned, it is also more than a little refreshing.