'Ordinary People' Learn What Happens To Marriage In Midlife

Sep 9, 2018

Diana Evans' new novel is about two couples who — as John Legend sang — are "right in the thick of love."

Evans took her title, Ordinary People, from Legend's song. The whole album Get Lifted, she says, "is very narrative" as it tells the story of "what can happen in a long-term relationship."

Evans follows two sets of friends — 30-something Londoners — as they navigate friendship, relationships and parenthood during pivotal moments of the early 2000s.

"I wanted to write in particular about motherhood," she explains, because "it had such a huge impact on my life" — but it took her a while to build up the courage.


Interview Highlights

On overcoming her fear of writing about marriage and motherhood

I think for many women motherhood is a huge identity change, so I wanted to dissect that and really examine that. I was inspired very much by the novels of John Updike and Richard Yates — who also dissect marriage and parenthood and long-term relationships — but they do it in a way that I found was very male. And I wanted to write about the female side of that experience ... I wanted to kind of equalize that story.

I think there's a lot of shame around writing about motherhood. ... I think female writers ... when they write about motherhood, or write about very personal subjects like love and relationships and things that aren't necessarily seen as sociological issues or political issues, they are often dismissed as "domestic" writers. It's sort of often seen as writing that doesn't have a huge social importance ... that possibly you're not contributing something "worthwhile" in terms of the themes in literature.

On the disenchanted couples at the heart of her story

The main couple is Melissa and Michael who've been together for 13 years and they live in London, south of the river, and they're at a point in their relationship where they've just had their second child and there's a distance developing between them that they're trying to negotiate. The other couple is Stephanie and Damian who have also been together for a long time and they have three children. ... Damian begins to develop this kind of infatuation with Melissa which has more to do with his own dissatisfaction with his life than an actual real attraction.

On the challenge of long-term relationships

I think the real challenge of marriage or a long-term relationship is trying to appreciate the wonderful things about it. That sense of human understanding and sort of compassion and home — a sense of home that is always there and is always accessible to you. But there is also this other side to it that is very full of doubts about whether you're missing what's on the other side of the fence. I think some of us are better at dealing with it than others ... people come from different backgrounds and that has an impact on how they perform in relationships.

On bracketing the novel with two events — the election of Barack Obama in 2008 and the death of Michael Jackson 2009

I tend to use cultural moments and iconography in my fiction as a way of grounding it in reality. Tolstoy also has something to do with it because I was quite influenced by War and Peace which opens with a party which is set in a particular political moment. And he uses that moment to open a window into a particular community that he was trying to depict ... the Russian aristocracy.

In my case, I was trying to depict the black, British middle class ... that's something that we don't really see much of. And I wanted to make that visible and to normalize my experience and the kind of lives that I know. ... I think there's been lots of focus on the negative aspects of blackness. And I wanted ... to write about very ordinary moments and very sort of poignant existential moments about human experience and human identity.

On exploring race in the book without having it as a central focus

The central part of the book is the marriage and the relationships, but I think as a black writer ... whatever I write about is infused with race because ... you can't really get away from it, you can't de-clothe yourself of race. But I think having said that, race shouldn't be something that black writers only are expected to dissect or are expected to carry. It's something that we should all carry.

Samantha Balaban and Caitlyn Kim produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

In the book "Ordinary People," the latest novel by Diana Evans, two sets of friends - 30-something, black Londoners - navigate friendship and relationships and parenthood during pivotal moments of the early 2000s. Evans borrowed the title from a song by John Legend.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ORDINARY PEOPLE")

JOHN LEGEND: (Singing) Girl, I'm in love with you. This ain't the honeymoon - past the infatuation phase.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The novel, like the song, is about what happens to couples who are, as the lyrics say, past the infatuation phase right in the thick of life.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ORDINARY PEOPLE")

JOHN LEGEND: (Singing) We're just ordinary people.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Diana Evans joins me now from the BBC in London. Welcome to the program.

DIANA EVANS: Thank you very much.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What about this song inspired you?

EVANS: Well, that whole album by John Legend inspired me, actually, because it's a very narrative album. And it tells a story of a relationship and what can happen in a long-term relationship. So it spoke very precisely to what I was trying to do with the novel to show the journey of a relationship deterioration in the context of parenting and career changes and the onset of mid-life and challenges.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Let's introduce our listeners to the two disenchanted couples in your novel. Who are they? And where in their lives do we meet them?

EVANS: The main couple is Melissa and Michael, who have been together for 13 years. And they live in London, south of the river. And they're at a point in their relationship where they've just had their second child. And there's a distance developing between them that they're trying to negotiate. And the other couple is Stephanie and Damian, who have also been together for a long time. And they have three children. They're married. And Damian begins to develop this kind of infatuation with Melissa, which has more to do with his own dissatisfaction with his life than an actual real attraction between him and Melissa. And that is explored through the course of the novel.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Michael, for his part, doesn't know what happened to his relationship or exactly how to fix it. And I'd like you to read to us from page 71.

EVANS: OK. (Reading) Now when he got home from work wearing his suit, Melissa would be standing at the kitchen sink and would hardly look at him. There was no smile, no hug. She no longer put kisses on the ends of her texts or emails during the day. Now it was only, can you pop to Little on way home - chick thighs, pots, tissues, milk. Or (unintelligible), please. Or can you be home by 6:30, so I can go to Zumba? Then once the children were in bed, they mostly retreated into their separate realms - he, on the sofa in front of the TV, and she, in the bedroom reading. They lived in two different houses in one, small house.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You know, I think anyone who's been in a long-term marriage or long-term relationship of any sort understands these sentiments. You know, it's hard to wake up to the same face every day. And you kind of get oppressed by how mundane marriage is, in many ways.

EVANS: Yeah. And I think the real challenge of marriage or a long-term relationship is trying to appreciate the wonderful things about it, that sense of human understanding and sort of compassion and home - a sense of home - that is always there and is always accessible to you. But there is also this other side to it that is very full of doubt about whether you're, you know, missing what's on the other side of the fence. I think some of us are better at dealing with it than others. And that's also something that's explored quite heavily.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You bracketed this novel with two very ordinary events, the election of Barack Obama in 2008 and the death of Michael Jackson in 2009. Why were these two events meaningful to you?

EVANS: Well, I tend to use cultural moments and iconography in my fiction as a way of grounding it in reality. And those two moments were so huge in - you know, in my life and in terms of music and politics. And they were both, you know, universal events. You know, Tolstoy also had something to do with it because he - I was quite influenced by "War And Peace," which opens with a party which is set in a particular political moment. And he uses that moment to open a window into a particular community that he was trying to depict which was the Russian aristocracy.

In my case, I was trying to depict the black, British, middle-class world. That's something that we don't really see much of. And I wanted to make that visible and to normalize it, to normalize my experience in the kind of lives that I know and recognize because I think there's been lots of focus on the negative aspects of blackness. And I wanted a thematic innocence, not having to write about race or write about issues that are directly associated with race but to write about very ordinary moments and very sort of poignant, existential moments about human experience and human identity.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You're of Nigerian descent. And I think that you do interweave the issues of race sort of very quietly in the book. You know, Michael worries that he'll be the only black person at the party. Damian is the son of a black activist. And he doesn't feel like he's living up. But that isn't the central part of the book.

EVANS: No. The central part of the book is the marriage, the relationships. But I think, as a black writer, it's difficult to write about. I think whatever I write about - it's infused with race because I'm black, you know? You can't really - you know, there's no - you can't really get away from it. You can de-clothe (ph) yourself of race. But, you know, I think, having said that, race shouldn't be something that black writers only are expected to dissect or are expected to carry. It's something that we should all carry. It's something that we should all think about because it doesn't belong to black people, if you see what I mean. It belongs - it's a world issue.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ORDINARY PEOPLE")

JOHN LEGEND: (Singing) This ain't a movie, no - no fairytale conclusion, y'all.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Diana Evans - her new book is "Ordinary People." Thank you so much.

EVANS: Thank you very much.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ORDINARY PEOPLE")

JOHN LEGEND: (Singing) Then we head back to hell again. We kiss. Then we make up on the way. I hang up. You call. We rise, and we fall. And we feel like just walking away. As our love advances, we take second chances. Though it's not a fantasy, I still want you to stay. We're just ordinary people. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.