Tuesday, 9 January 2018

Go on, try it. Admit you hate your partner's best friend.

‘Can men and women ever be friends? Just friends?’

That is the rather uninspiring question apparently posed by Lionel Shriver’s The Standing Chandelier. In case you didn’t quite grasp its point, ‘just’ is printed in italics so that readers catch on quickly. Here is a question that magazines and romance novels can continue to puzzle over for years safe in the knowledge that there is no good answer so they won’t need to find a new question.

Given the vast wealth of political, social and economic upheaval in recent years, given crises in health, homelessness, hunger, given that Shriver is someone brave and articulate and controversial, I was excited to know: what would she write about next? Her previous book, The Mandibles: A family 2029-2047, was sharp and eerie in its predictions. Shriver created an all too real fiction in which the US dollar collapses and society falls irreparably apart. It is deeply complex and hard to read for all the right reasons.

Hence, some trepidation on my part at the premise for The Standing Chandelier. I should have known that it too would comprise both anthropological study and biting satire.

The idea is simple: Weston Babansky and Jillian Frisk are best friends and tennis partners. They have been lovers in the past. Weston Babansky and Paige Myer have been together for a couple of years. Inevitably, Paige has strong feelings about Weston’s friendship with Jillian.

When Weston asks Paige to marry him, she agrees on the condition that he break off his friendship with Jillian. He has until their wedding day to end it; and that includes playing tennis together. So far, so pedestrian.

Yet the writing catches you from the outset and draws you into two in-depth character studies, (almost three). I was asking the wrong question. Shriver doesn’t choose ‘hot button issues’ for their own sake. She spots what is getting to her and finds a way to write about it. If she writes to provoke a reaction, doubtless she achieves that here.

Jillian is a big-haired, big-voiced woman who owns “enough scarves to kill Isadora Duncan three times over” and is not quite to everyone’s taste. ‘Baba’, as she refers to Weston, explains without fear of upsetting her that she has a strong taste: “some people just don’t like anchovies”.

She has an implausibly good deal with a wealthy family in Lexington who give her a small stipend and allow her to live in a cottage in their grounds on the understanding that she put the bins out and water the indoor plants, a role that their gardener presumably can’t fulfil. Through this and sporadic tutoring, Jillian can enjoy her two loves: playing tennis and creative ‘projects’. She is not an artist, that would be pretentious after all, she apparently just enjoys creating without the judgement of exhibiting.

Between making some dreadful sounding pieces, including necklaces for Paige, which she presents ‘wrapped’ in birch bark, and some brilliant carpentry in her cottage, Jillian begins work on a deeply personal autobiography in the form of a sort of giant lamp. It is decorated with objects and prize possessions that describe her life – among them salt and pepper shakers from her first flight (aeroplanes give individual cruets?), a Susan B. Anthony silver dollar, not to mention her own body parts; her wisdom teeth and a lock of her own hair reside amongst the chandelier’s branches. We read a beautiful description of the installation through Weston’s eyes and see him moved, impressed and aware of the many elements of the piece that relate to their friendship.

Weston has a vague freelance role in IT so that both of them have the freedom to play tennis together three afternoons a week for two hours, followed by long conversations on the bench by the courts, dissecting events in their lives and discussing recipes for freekeh or how long to sous vide salmon (Shriver, ever up to date with her references). It appears to have taken him two years to realise that on tennis afternoons Paige “got in a bad mood”. She has expressed her distaste for Jillian previously but, when he asks her to marry him, she really goes for it and offers him an ultimatum: her or me.

Following Paige’s harsh invective, Weston all too humanly begins to see the things he loves about his friend through Paige’s eyes. Ignoring the fact that Jillian has every reason for asking him why he seems unhappy about his engagement, he begins to analyse everything she says to try and fit her words to Paige’s view.  Jillian points out, quite reasonably, “I asked before we played if you felt down, and you said yes.” Weston dissects this as, “Actively looks for signs that Baba does not really want to marry Paige”. When asked, “why are you so disturbed?”, he evaluates, “Deliberately exaggerates what Baba believes is carefully controlled affect”.

It is in the depiction of the breakdown of Jillian and Weston’s friendship (and their ability to play tennis together) that the writing proves excellent in its analysis of social behaviour. The more Paige’s words play on his mind, the more Weston looks for flaws in his best friend. The more badly he behaves towards her, pushing her away and, horror, telling her she needs tennis lessons, the harder Jillian tries to please him, only making her all the more irritating.

Confused and naïve, rather than see the repeated refusals to come to dinner for what they are and unperturbed by the lack of a formal invitation to the wedding, Jillian questions how to show that she is pleased for Weston and Paige. She needs a grand gesture, a sacrifice that demonstrates her genuine pleasure about their impending marriage. She decides to give them a wedding gift, the ‘Standing Chandelier’.

The scenes of her trying to wrap up the chandelier, enlisting the help of the gardener to drive it to Weston’s house and failing to pull off a big reveal as it takes her an hour and a half to remove the bubble wrap are witty and painful. She seems to give the gift with simple good intention, excited at her own magnanimity in bequeathing something so important to her. But, is there more to it? Does she sense Weston’s pulling away and so give him this to indebt him to her and strengthen their ties? Has she, even unconsciously, formed a plan essentially to plant herself right in the couple’s living room forever?

At this stage my blood began to boil at Weston’s cowardice and at Paige’s clinging to social mores. Weston actually intends to just keep playing tennis with his partner until the day before his wedding. If he thinks he’s done something wrong in his friendship with Jillian – and if he doesn’t why on earth has he agreed never to speak to her again? – how can he keep spending time with her like this, not to mention hurting her and his fiancé horribly? If Paige is so concerned with ‘the right way to behave in society’, isn’t it odd that she even accepts the gift when she has ordered the end of their friendship?

Finally an element of the truth seems to dawn on Jillian as she pushes Weston for more information about the wedding day itself. His outburst that she isn’t invited because Paige doesn’t like her is so raw you can almost hear his intake of breath after the unfortunate words spill out. Twenty-five years of friendship is over more quickly than a Federer ace.

Exactly a year after Jillian gave the (now happy?) couple the chandelier she writes to Weston asking for him to return it. It was given under false apprehensions and contains irreplaceable objects. Frankly, I was entirely Team Jillian on this one. Weston has ended his previous relationships when, while ‘listening to the symphony of his feelings’, one wrong note ruins the whole piece. Paige’s refusal to return the gift that she originally hated surely rings sharp for him. Jillian must cause this note to sound all the louder when she sums up Paige’s reason for keeping the sculpture, ‘she just wants to keep her scalp’.

Once the rules are disbanded the question is, who wins? Paige? If only for now? The obligation for Jillian and Paige to be relatively polite to one another is gone; they don’t have to interact at all. The embarrassment Jillian ‘ought’ to feel at asking for a present back again is non-existent; she no longer has a relationship with Weston that would lead her to care what he thought. For the women, the situation is reduced to who gets to keep the spoils. For Weston, peace with his wife trumps all.

In some defence of Paige, she is apparently reasonable about and forgiving of Weston’s foibles in every other situation, not the least of which is the, to me infuriating, fact that he sleeps until 4pm every day. It is only on the subject of Jillian that she becomes controlling and really quite vindictive.

Paige picks a fight with her the first time she meets her as if she has formed her opinions and suspicions before doing so. She is uncomfortable with how comfortable Jillian appears with herself.  She can’t stand her non-conformity. Jillian’s lack of career is not an original choice but middle class privilege. She is, ‘all presentation and no substance’. She is, ‘undersocialized’. Worst of all she behaves possessively over Weston and does all this whilst daring to be really rather attractive. Which is why it’s so galling that on some points Paige is right. Who would be comfortable with their partner seeing someone else three times a week for long periods of time, often drinking heavily together and discussing the intimate details of their life?

I finished the book fuming at the way Jillian is treated. Not because I thought that she and Weston should end up together in some dull romantic ending but because we see her questioning her own motives and assured that she is happy for her best friend. She isn’t obviously lying to herself but she can’t convince Weston that their relationship is a true friendship. It says something about the disconnect in communication that she cannot make this clear to him. The more she tries to express herself, the more desperate and false it sounds. All of which is exacerbated by her being an attractive woman talking to a man.

Paige observes another, typical truism of our behaviour: saying nice things about someone is often quite boring and never takes very long to say. Ironically, doing so during her long diatribe against Jillian. Even though Weston is aware that her words might affect his opinion of Jillian, this is no defence against the change. Once he starts analysing everything he is lost down the rabbit hole.

Reading parts of the dialogue over again, I felt a little chastened. My initial anger gave way to an appreciation that, their conversations are so well drawn that when one character is speaking you see his or her point and then your allegiance shifts when another interjects. Thanks to the telling pauses in between conversation, you can also understand what they really mean when they don’t quite say it. I’m not entirely convinced that Paige would cite Princess Diana’s words about there being three people in her marriage to convince Weston to break up with his best friend but perhaps it indicates a future for this story outside of the book.

The chandelier itself is set up as a symbol, but of what? Its identity keeps changing, from representing Jillian, to representing her wish to be pleased at her friend’s marriage, to (for Paige) representing Jillian’s self-obsession, to no more than a curiosity for dinner guests, to Paige’s trophy.

Beneath this, we wonder what Jillian means by asking Weston so intensely what he thinks of it, particularly given the many memories of their life together that it features. We wonder what Weston does think of it in the early hours of the morning as he uses the chandelier to light his work and his whisky glass. We wonder how Paige can happily chat at dinner parties about the chandelier when surely doing so brings up its creator; presumably admitting that this woman has been banished from your life isn’t very classy behaviour for someone so committed to good etiquette.

Well, people are hypocrites, conversation is never solely about what we say out loud and society has rules whose breaking we can all rather enjoy once we take that liberating step of admitting that we just don’t like someone.

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