Tag Archives: therapist

Case Study: Graeme Macrae Burnet

Some pages into Graeme Macrae Burnet’s latest novel I decided to look up the term Case Study, and this is what I found: “a research approach that is used to generate an in-depth, multi-faceted understanding of a complex issue in its real-life context.” Keeping that definition at the back on my mind, I understood the aptness of the title.

The story is told by GMB, a writer who is fascinated by the work of Collins Braithwaite the “enfant terrible of the so-called anti-psychiatry movement of the 1960s.” GMB stumbled across Braithwaite’s book, Untherapy in a used bookshop, and he finds the book, a collection of case studies to be “salacious, iconoclastic and compelling.” When GMB attempts to research Braithwaite’s work, he finds “scant information” on the internet and disappointingly, the Braithwaite archive at the university of Durham contains just a “couple of cardboard boxes” of manuscripts some newspaper clippings and a few letters. But then GMB receives an email in response to a blog post about Braithwaite. The email is from a man who calls himself Mr. Grey, admits that this is not his real name, and that he has in his possession notebooks written by his cousin. Grey states that the notebooks “contain certain allegations about Braithwaite.” So Mr Grey, refusing to meet GMB, posts the notebooks. GMB reads them and the content of these notebooks constitute a large portion of the novel.

So now to the notebooks: a young woman named Veronica visited Braithwaite a number of times. She later committed suicide and Braithwaite’s notes pertaining to Veronica appear in his book, Untherapy, but he cloaks her identity by calling her Dorothy. Dorothy’s sister blames Braithwaite for her sister’s suicide, so she too begins visiting Braithwaite assuming the name Rebecca Smythe. And Rebecca is not a happy camper:

In this spirit, I shall begin by stating the facts. The danger to which I have alluded comes in the person of Collins Braithwaite. You will have heard him described in the press as ‘Britain’s most dangerous man’, this on account of his ideas about psychiatry. It is my belief, however, that it is not merely his ideas that are dangerous. I am convinced, you see, that Dr. Braithwaite killed my sister, Veronica. I do not mean that he murdered her in the normal sense of the word, but that he is nonetheless, as responsible for her death as if he had strangled her with his bare hands.

Rebecca, since she is seeking sessions with Braithwaite, decides to appear as a disturbed young woman. But a few pages into her journal, and it’s clear that Rebecca is disturbed. Intriguingly, while ‘Rebecca’ adds a few trivial touches to her pretense of being disturbed (holes in her stockings) in reality it becomes clear the Rebecca has many issues and had a troubled relationship with her now deceased sister. Rebecca finds that her newly created persona offers her a freedom from her usual/daily self. (Here I thought of Belle de Jour–a bit of an extreme example but in essence the same thing.)

The novel explores therapy and the dangers of an unhinged therapist. We all know there are ‘good’ and ‘bad’ doctors, and we know there are ‘good’ and ‘bad’ therapists. Damaged people seeking therapy from an egomaniac of a therapist who seems more interested in flouting the established schools of psychotherapy than actually helping patients is a formula for trouble. Braithwaite is, in many respects, an appalling human being: his treatment of the women in his life for example. Yet he had some interesting ideas:

To embrace the idea that a person is not a single self, but a bundle of personae, all of which should be valued equally.

The novel is set in London in the 1960s and splits between sections of Braithwaite’s bio and Rebecca. The book’s preface and postscript introduce and extend the novel’s amalgam of fact and fiction. The author goes into the term Case Study on his website. Th

Reading this was like watching a prolonged loop of that famous scene from The Lady from Shanghai. –disorienting but you can’t turn your eyes away.

The Gerts’ review.

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The Golden Couple: Greer Hendricks & Sarah Pekkanen

In Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen’s domestic thriller, Marissa and Matthew Bishop are The Golden Couple; to outsiders they are enviable. Matthew is a good-looking buff lawyer, and Marissa owns an upscale boutique. Matthew and Marissa have one child together and live in an affluent Washington suburb. The book starts rolling when Marissa seeks counseling from Avery Chambers, a “maverick” therapist who has lost her license (red flag, anyone?) and as the book rolls on, we discover just why she lost her license. Avery’s unorthodox protocol consists of 10 sessions; it’s a sort of shock therapy but without the electricity. In the first session, which, according to Avery, always includes a confession, Marissa confesses to infidelity. Usually each session brings more clarity to Avery’s understanding of her clients’ marriage, but in this case, the more sessions that take place, Avery finds it harder and harder to put her finger on exactly what is wrong with the Bishops’ marriage.

To Avery, Marissa’s view of her marriage isn’t quite real–it’s more of a “curated Instagram” version of life. Matthew seems to love his wife, and although stunned by Marissa’s confession of adultery, he’s willing to work things through. So if things were normal, Avery would conduct her 10 sessions, the rot of the Bishop’s marriage would be revealed and turned over like a compost heap, and then the repair and healing would begin. Hypothetically, that is.

However, there are several complications afoot. Avery is threatened by a mega-pharmaceutical company for her role in a whistleblower event, plus she’s recently widowed and is still dealing with the finality of that situation. Then there’s Matthew who maintains some sort of a relationship with the perfect, blonde Natalie, a former girlfriend. She’s now divorced, flitting in and out of his life, and has more than a passing interest in Matthew. Then there’s Marissa, a woman who is fractured and is unravelling fast but who remains unsure why she isn’t happy in her marriage. Weird things are happening–several stalkers, a bouquet of flowers sent anonymously to Marissa, a nosy employee at Marissa’s boutique who spies on her boss, a mystery assailant and an old fling of Avery’s who shows up and starts snooping. ….

The story goes back and forth with chapters told by Marissa and Avery. This is a tense page turner; at first I thought since Avery was a therapist who lost her license, this was going to be a ‘when therapists go wrong’ book, but no. Avery feels freed by her lack of license, free to engage in therapy that doesn’t follow the rules–therapy that’s invasive. The authors fold out layers and secrets, so that it’s clear that many characters are not quite what they appear to be. I guessed the dark, core secret at the heart of the book, but I enjoyed the ride. Regular readers of this blog know I have a soft spot for therapist novels, and The Golden Couple, a domestic thriller (woman in danger in upscale suburbia) had enough twists and turns to keep me engaged. In non-nonsense strong-minded Avery, I can see a series character here; she’s the most interesting character in the book (Marissa is wimpy) and in Avery’s chapters, more and more information rolls out, until we see what makes this woman tick. You don’t screw with Avery.

(And I highly recommend The Woman Across the Street From the Girl in the Window, a lively, entertaining series which pokes fun of this genre–hitting all the tropes with just the right pitch.)

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You Should Have Known: Jean Hanff Korelitz

Remember the days when books had alternate titles? Well if I had to give Jean Hanff Korelitz’s book You Should have Known an alternate title, it would be Me and My Big Mouth. This is tale of how one married therapist’s very public statements, made via a non-fiction book, come back to haunt her in a big way.

When the book opens, successful New York therapist Grace is on the cusp of a huge upswing in her career. She’s written a book: You Should Have Known: Why Women Fail to Hear What the Men in their Lives are Telling Them. Grace’s thesis is that women in failed, toxic relationships “knew right at the beginning” that there were warning signs, but that they somehow “unknow” and “let[s] these early impressions, this basic awareness, get overwhelmed by something else.”

You know how we always tell ourselves, You never know, when someone does something we don’t see coming? We’re shocked that he turns out to be a womanizer, or an embezzler. He’s an addict. He lied about everything. Or he’s just garden-variety selfish and the fact that he’s married to you and perhaps you have children together-that doesn’t seem to stop him from behaving as if he’s still a single-unencumbered teenager.

It’s an interesting, but limited thesis. In the first chapter, Grace is interviewed about her book as she presents her argument that women marry men recognizing, but burying their faults as they walk down the aisle to short-lived wedded bliss. Grace has an inflexible approach to the ‘should have known‘ theory which fails to acknowledge a) a lack of experience 2) the deviousness of sociopaths/ psychopaths 3) a frame of reference and, finally, 4) plenty of people acknowledge in hindsight that ‘they should have known.’

Grace’s rather arrogant, judgmental argument is unforgiving. But then Grace, of course, has a perfect marriage to pediatric oncologist Jonathan. With a job such as his, Jonathan is gone a lot; he’s a devoted doctor to his patients, going above and beyond in his free time. …

Physician, heal thyself.

The first chapter was great fun. I knew Grace was going to get her comeuppance and since she’s put her rigid theory in a book, I knew she was going to regret her very-public words.

The second long, incredibly boring chapter tossed me into a bunch of stuffy uppercrusty women who manage fundraisers for the snot private school Grace’s son attends. These “highly tended” women may or may not subscribe to Grace’s theories about relationships, but like Grace they are coddled in a cocoon of privilege (although we are supposed to believe these women are more privileged than Grace). Amongst all the high-maintenance women, there’s one mother who sticks out like some sort of exotic weed, Malaga, a woman whose son attends the school on a scholarship. Malaga ends up murdered, and it’s a shocking event as things like this don’t happen to women in Grace’s protected social circle.

This domestic thriller is a slow read, and Grace’s (initial) constant eulogizing of her mysteriously absent husband is absurd, boring and nauseating. Here she is berating women for choosing to ignore the warning signs about the psycho men in their lives, and she’s blithely sashaying down the same path in a cloud of denial and … yes… stupidity. The best part of the book is the anticipation that Grace is going to get her comeuppance as her perfect little world crumbles around her. Karma can be a bitch.

The HBO series, The Undoing, places a different emphasis on various aspects of the novel. Smart move.

 

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Vacuum in the Dark: Jen Beagin

“I’m definitely fucked up enough to be a therapist.”

Vacuum in the Dark from Jen Beagin is the follow-up novel to Pretend I’m Dead, but it can be read as a standalone. Pretend I’m Dead was the author’s debut novel; it introduces 24-year-old Mona, who cleans houses for a living. In this novel, Mona falls in love with a man she calls Mr Disgusting, and moves to Taos, New Mexico. When Vacuum in the Dark opens, Mona is cleaning the home of Rose, a blind therapist when she discovers a piece of poo, masquerading as soap, sitting on the side of a sink.

Vacuum in the dark

Mona’s cleaning lady observations were brilliant and brilliantly funny. Cleaners get to see a side of their employers that is invisible to others, and the author capitalises on Mona’s employment, making observations, while Mona engages in “clandestine photography.” 

People were like vampires. Their stories drained the life out of her. Then, half-dead and bloodless, she carried on cleaning their toilets like nothing had ever happened.

Even before Mona starts finding poo strategically placed in Rose’s home, it’s already evident that Mona’s life is strange. She’s surrounded by Strange. Perhaps this explains why she has conversation with NPR’s Terry Gross in her head. “Terry was simply a sober and inquistive voice,” who argues for rational behavior in Mona’s otherwise looney-environment. The weirdness in Mona’s life also extends to her home. She rents half a house while the other half is rented by an older married couple who “made music with homemade instruments and dressed in matching pajamas.”

Then there’s Rose and her household. Rose owns a dog named Dinner, has a hostile teenage daughter, and a husband who makes coffins. The Big Question lurking under Mona’s daily routine is: who is responsible for the poo?

Here’s Mona talking to Rose after describing a photograph she has just found:

“What do you see when you think of the color red?” Mona asked.

“Oh, I remember red,” Rose said. “I wasn’t born blind.”

“Oh,” Mona said. “Were you  … in a accident?”

“Sort of,” she said, and smiled weakly. “I was having an affair with the man you just described.”

Mona silently took a step back. She heard Dinner drink from his bowl in the kitchen.

“Do you mean your father molested you?” Mona asked.

“I thought of it as an affair,” Rose said, “which sounds ridiculous and insane, but I was convinced that we were in love. I was thirteen.”

“Mayday,” Terry whispered. “Bail out.”

“Not now, ” Mona whispered back.

“We never had intercourse,” Rose volunteered. “It was more emotional than anything. Which isn’t to say that it wasn’t sexual too.” 

Mona cleared her throat. “And you went blind?” 

“Well, that was partly genetic,” Rose said.

Mona looked toward the front door, Closed, but not locked. She imagined herself tiptoeing out of the room and then making a run for it. 

Opening a novel with a description of grabbing fecal matter is a bold way to begin, and it’s also an off-putting start. I almost gave up right then and there but very quickly found myself engaged by Mona’s engaging narrative voice. Some authors have a talent for creating genuine voices, voices that appeal and compel us to read on, and in this novel, Beagin gives us a marvellous, original voice. Some things really worked in this subversive novel, while others did not. Sex scenes in novels don’t add a lot for this reader, and some of the lines grated: “I want to hump your armpits,” she said. “And maybe your hair.” But that said, I’m glad I stuck with this.

Vacuum in the Dark may appeal to fans of Ottessa Moshfegh

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Sunday Silence: Nicci French

“After all, you’re a psychiatrist. You’re an expert in people’s dark sides.” 

Sunday Silence is the seventh novel in the Nicci French (husband and wife writing team Nicci Gerrard and Sean French ) Frieda Klein series. If you haven’t at least read some of the series, then you don’t want to start with this book. In fact you need to go back to the beginning, to Blue Monday, the first Frieda Klein novel, which introduces the complicated world of our London-based psychotherapist Frieda Klein, and also her arch-nemesis, Dean Reeve.

Sunday Silence

Sunday Silence opens with Frieda’s world becoming (once again) the object of public scrutiny. A body is discovered under the floorboards of her London home, and since Frieda’s house/office has become a crime scene, she finds she must relocate, at least temporarily, to her friend, Reuben’s house.

The prickly Chief Inspector Petra Burge is in charge of the investigation, but the crime pulls Detective Chief Inspector Karlsson, who’s out on leave due to a broken leg, and Constable Yvette Long back into the game. Other returning series characters include: builder Josef (who discovered the body during renovations) and Frieda’s troubled niece, Chloe. It’s always satisfying to reconnect with series characters and see how their lives have progressed. In Reuben’s case, he’s suffering from cancer.

The body is identified as ex-policeman Bruce Stringer who was hired by Frieda to find Dean Reeve, so of course, the finger points towards Dean Reeve as the murderer. Dean Reeve was thought to have committed suicide years earlier, but Frieda has always insisted that he’s still alive. This murder seems to prove that she’s right.

Frieda is as complicated as ever, and as usual, she never reacts as she is expected to react. As the case gains national attention and reporters circle, there’s one scene that takes place during a press conference. She’s been groomed as to how she should behave.

Frieda opened her eyes. “There are psychiatrists who are interested in violence and evil but I’m not one of them. I’m a therapist and I deal with ordinary unhappiness. I don’t have any big theory about Dean Reeve. At a certain point in his life, I just got in the way.”

Months pass, and the furor over the crime dies down, and then attacks begin on people in Frieda’s life. … Frieda, a character full of contradictions, must curse the day she ran into Dean Reeve. And while she says she ‘just got in his way,’ we can’t help but feel that there’s a bit more afoot. It’s a terrible thing to become a psychopath’s object of interest, and the more he understands about his victim, then the more vulnerable that person becomes. Will this page-turner (one of the best of the ones I’ve read in this series) bring a close to the near-invisible cat-and-mouse relationship that’s existed between Frieda and Dean?

Regular readers of this blog know that I have a fondness for books about therapists, so I enjoyed this one.

I always thought it was a mistake for Frieda to live AND work in the same place. Just saying…

There’s an eighth book in the series: Day of the Dead scheduled for July 2018 in the US

Cleo also read and enjoyed the book. (UK title: Sunday Morning Coming Down)

Review copy

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Blue Monday by Nicci French

“Everyone hates Mondays. It’s the low point of the week. When the alarm clock goes off on Monday morning and it’s still dark outside, and you know you have to haul yourself out of bed and begin all over again.”

I’ve seen a couple of made-for-television films based on Nicci French books–Without You and  Secret Smile to be specific. I’ve intended to read one of the novels for some time, and I was lucky enough to get a review copy of Blue Monday, a book I wanted to read after seeing reviews on Caroline’s blog and also on Reading Matters. Blue Monday is, according to the authors, Nicci Gerrard and Sean French, a husband and wife team–the first in a series of eight, so sign me up for the long haul; I’m hooked.

The novel begins very strongly with the disappearance of a five-year-old child. It’s 1987, a Monday and two little girls, sisters Joanna and Rosa walk home from school together, but when Rosa loses sight of her sister for just an instance, Joanna disappears. The novel charts the case with gripping intensity and poignant moments: the initial intense investigation, the suspects, the guilt, the grief, and then finally the acceptance that this child has vanished. Joanna’s father, the main suspect at one point, is a wreck of man who compares  Joanna’s disappearance and the subsequent fallout to the unravelling of piece of knitting:

“Everything simply comes undone and in just a few moments nothing’s left to show anything was ever there.”

Fast forward twenty-two years; it’s another Monday and psychotherapist Frieda Klein is introduced into the story. She runs a small practice in London, lives alone, and is given to solitary walks at night–a habit that suits her insomnia and allows her to think through her many problems–both personal and professional. Her latest patient is Alan Dekker, a married man in his 40s. Lately Alan doesn’t feel quite well and suffers from nameless anxieties, panic attacks and the feeling that “a storm’s coming.” He admits to a “sense of being in the wrong life,” and wonders if he’s having some sort of mid-life crisis. Plagued by nightmares and strange visions, he consents to therapy and through circumstance, ends up sitting in front of Frieda. Although Alan is tightly wound and an introvert, he admits to longing for a child, a little red-haired boy, and then Frieda realises that Alan’s description uncannily matches the description of a missing five-year-old boy. Frieda faces a moral dilemma–should she tell the police or are her client’s fantasies harmless and coincidental? This moral dilemma leads Frieda to step outside of the patient-therapist boundaries and into the investigations of two missing children.

The authors successfully mesh the investigation of the missing boy with Frieda’s private and personal life. She struggles with her relationship with her one-time mentor, Reuben, who now finds himself bored by his patients and unable to concentrate on his cases, and Frieda must also come to a decision regarding Sandy, a man she’s finally allowed into her life. Then there’s her needy sister-in-law and her self-mutilating niece who aren’t above using a little emotional blackmail to exact a bigger slice of Frieda’s time. This is a lot for Frieda to absorb in her personal life while maintaining balance enough to help patients. Here’s Reuben on being burned out as a therapist:

You wouldn’t believe where I’ve gone. You wouldn’t believe the shit that flows through my human brain, and I’ve walked through it up to my neck. Men have told me things about children and women have told me things about their fathers and their uncles, and I don’t know why they didn’t just go out of the room and blow their fucking brains out, and I thought if I went on the journey with them, if I showed them that they weren’t alone, that someone could share it, then maybe they could come back and make something of their lives. And you know what? After thirty years of it, I’ve had it.

Frieda makes a marvellous series character; she’s intense, incredibly mentally tough, a loner, and committed to her job. Her main premise is that her job is “helping people sort the story of their lives. Give them a narrative,” yet in true therapist fashion (and I have a weakness with stories that feature therapists as characters), Frieda is often weighed down with her own problems. There are hints of Frieda’s problems with her mostly invisible family, and she readily admits she’s not sure of her own narrative. But Frieda isn’t the only fascinating character here, and there are plenty of hints that we’re going to see more of Ukrainian Josef,  Detective Inspector Yvette Long and her boss, divorced Detective Chief Inspector Malcolm Karlsson. While I guessed two of the plots twists and turns (one of which caused me to become somewhat annoyed with the police investigation), Blue Monday, comparable to the best of Ruth Rendell is full of engaging, sympathetic characters who demand sustained attention, and is an excellent beginning to a new series of page-turning psychological suspense novels. Given the ending, I’d hazard a guess that there’s some unfinished business in this story that will reemerge somewhere in the next seven novels.  

Finally here’s a quote from Frieda, an observation on one of her walks which ties in very subtly with the disappearance of a child twenty-two years before and whose traces remain only in the minds of those who loved her:

But Frieda was walking along the course of an old river. She had always been drawn to it. Once it had flowed through fields and orchards down to the Thames. It had been a place for people to sit by, to fish in, What would they have thought, men and women sitting on a summer evening, dangling their feet in the water, if they had seen its future? It had become a rubbish dump, a sewer, a ditch clogged with shit and dead animals and everything else that people couldn’t be bothered to do anything with. Finally it had been built over and forgotten about. How could a river be forgotten about? When she walked this way, Frieda always stopped by a grating where you could still hear the river flowing deep below like an echo of something. And when you had left that behind, you could still walk between the banks rising on either side. Even the occasional street name hinted at the wharves where barges had been unloaded and before that the rises, the grass slopes where people sat and just watched the crystal water flow down into the Thames. That was London. Things built upon things built upon things, each in their turn forgotten about but each somehow leaving a trace, if only a rush of water heard through a grating.

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Something to Tell You by Hanif Kureishi

“Secrets are my currency: I deal in them for a living. The secrets of desire, of what people want, and of what they fear the most. The secrets of why love is difficult, sex complicated, living painful and death so close and yet placed far away. Why are pleasure and punishment closely related? How do our bodies speak? Why do we make ourselves ill? Why do you want to fail? Why is pleasure so hard to bear?”

And so begins Hanif Kureishi’s brilliant new novel, Something to Tell You. While I often don’t particularly like the characters Kureishi creates (I would find their lives too messy to deal with in ‘real life’), they are always the sort of people I want to read about–bright, interesting, entertaining and troubled. And in Something to Tell You, once again, Kureishi delivers a wonderful tale with his usual worldly wisdom. If you enjoyed The Buddha of Suburbia, then chances are you will enjoy the marvelous Something To Tell You, for in some ways these two novels complement each other.

The narrator of Something to Tell You is Jamal Kahn a London-based, middle-aged Anglo-Indian psychoanalyst. Jamal tells us: “Alas to the surprise of many, psychoanalysis doesn’t make people behave better, nor does it make them morally good.” Divorced and with a busy practice, Jamal spends his days listening to his patients’ many problems, and even Jamal’s relatives, friends and acquaintances feel free to bend Jamal’s ear at any time of the day or night. Jamal, who spends his life listening to others, tells his story to the reader, reaching back into his past while exploring the nature of desire, guilt, and loss. Kureishi’s characters are mainly middle-aged Londoners, coming to terms with aging and death, juggling those realities against the time left. While the renewal of desire and desirability is a huge issue for some of the characters, Jamal struggles with the ghosts of his past and long cherished dreams of what could have been.

Jamal’s life is full of colourful characters–Jamal’s mother has “discharged her duty and gone AWOL,” and Jamal’s exotic sister, Miriam and her lover theater and film director Henry embark on an odyssey of the London sex club scene, much to the dismay of Henry’s daughter. The fact that Henry is also Jamal’s best friend complicates matters even further, and Jamal is expected to ‘save’ Henry from Miriam’s corrupting clutches. But Jamal has problems of his own. His ex-wife Josephine and son, Rafi are steadily moving out of Jamal’s life into new lives of their own. When the novel begins, Jamal’s life is fairly sterile and uncomplicated, but as the story develops, he becomes increasingly mired in the relationships of his family and friends. Plus Jamal’s past–incidents he’d much rather leave buried–float to the surface and cannot be avoided.

I loved this novel. Kureishi’s amazing insight into human relationships seeps through on every page, and he’s an experienced enough author to veer away from the trap of making the therapist/narrator the person who has all the answers. Jamal may be a therapist, but he’s just as troubled as everyone else. The difference with Jamal, however, is that his problems are largely buried, so his life appears, at least on the surface, to be in control. The madness and mayhem of Miriam’s chaotic household with her cabbie partner-in crime, Bushy, a dealer in contraband, is in complete contrast to Jamal’s ordered existence. Jamal has a time and a place for passion, but unlike his sister, it’s compartmentalized, tucked safely away from the other aspects of his life. Jamal’s ex-lover, Karen notes that Jamal “hated to fall in love, it was liked being sucked down the plughole. You lost control, it was madness.”

Kureishi’s books and films (Rosie and Sammy Get Laid, My Beautiful Launderette) tend to be social commentaries of the shifting times. Buddha of Suburbia, for example, is a stunning account of the 70s and 80s in Britain. Something to Tell You is also an account of a shifting Britain–a Britain in which “we live in Thatcher’s psyche if not her anus, in the world she made, of competition, consumerism, celebrity and guilt’s bastard son, Charity: bingeing and debt.” In this world of shifting values, “who could not be amused by the fact that the capitalism unleashed by the Conservatives under Thatcher was destroying the very social values the party espoused.” With an unpopular war waging in Iraq, the tragedy of the London bombings of 2005, and a country run by a government running amok, Kureishi weaves in the troubled political times that contribute to his characters’ sense of betrayal, loss, and confusion as they struggle with disappointments, aging, and the “uses and difficulties of pleasure.”

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