“Stay Close to Me” Helen Warner (Simon and Schuster) – novel review

Stay Close to Me by Helen Warner book cover

On the second anniversary of her husband, Michael’s, death, Jennifer decides to track down an ex-lover to try and answer a question from her past. Meanwhile her two daughters have problems of their own.

Capable Kate’s marriage to Miles has fallen into a routine with Miles gradually contributing less and less and their teenaged daughter picking up some of the slack around the house as Kate tries to balance a demanding job as a district nurse with shouldering the burden of household chores and being a parent to their two children. A witness, who assists after Kate’s involved in a minor car accident, might jolt Kate out of complacency and put her back in charge of her life. However, that might end her marriage. Her dilemma – should she stick with faithful, boring Miles or choose an exciting stranger – almost mirrors her mother’s decades ago when Jennifer decided to marry Michael.

Meanwhile Jennifer’s youngest daughter Amy, who, after years of feeling that she never matched up to Kate, appears to have a perfect life: hard-working husband Ben who provides a sizeable house in a highly regarded area, a nanny and gardener so Amy can pretend to be a stay at home mum without any of the drag and routine of parenting, a basement gym so Amy can keep in shape and a supply of credit for Amy to furnish her wardrobe with designer labels. After a carefree weekend at her mother’s, Amy discovers that Ben hasn’t come home and if she wants to keep her family together she’s going to have to take on the responsibilities she’s evaded and take charge.

The lack of forward plot momentum – most chapters end on a resolution so the reader’s not motivated to turn the page to find out what happens next – isn’t a problem. Helen Warner turns this into an advantage as she gives readers time to get to know the characters. Her characters are strong. The central three women are recognisably from the same family but also individuals in their own right. Their children too stand up individually, Kate’s Millie is an anxious teen, Josh is an easy-going football fan, Amy’s Flora is sensible and responsible and the youngest Sam is a sunny boy for whom every day is still an adventure. Their husbands, Miles and Ben, take back seats but are not superfluous or oblivious to their wife’s dilemmas. It’s the characters who provide the momentum to continue reading.

It’s worth reading on. Jennifer’s ongoing heart problem becomes critical just as Miles accuses Kate of having an affair, forcing Jennifer to reveal a secret that she’d kept hidden for over three decades. A secret that forces Kate and Amy to face up to the their past being based on a lie and then decide what impact that will have on their future. “Stay Close to Me” explores the ties that keep families together, or tear them apart, without invoking melodrama. The events are dramatic, but credible with a realistic impact on the characters who react naturally.

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