Book review: The Birthday by Julie Highmore

Family gatherings can be so fraught...tensions, fears and frustrations have a nasty habit of rising to the surface.

Tuesday, 4th January 2011, 6:00 am

But the secrets unearthed at Fran’s 60th birthday celebrations are going to cause the kind of shockwaves that will change lives forever.

Julie Highmore knows all about relationship problems and her latest socially aware and psychologically astute novel puts two generations of a family under the spotlight.

Using her now trademark dry humour and warm understanding of life’s trials and tribulations, Highmore allows her story to unfold through a tantalising series of flashbacks.

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Fran’s daughter Emily spends a few precious hours with her Iranian-born lover Hadi, then picks up her two children Martha and George and returns to the routine of her married life.

Naturally, she experiences moments of guilt and self-loathing when she wishes she could count her blessings and, for once in her life, just settle for ‘normal’.

You’re so lucky, her friends tell her, and of course she is. Husband Alex is dependable, good-looking, buys her flowers, is a real family man and adores his children. Her head tells her he’s perfect but her heart longs for Hadi, a man she hardly knows.

Meanwhile, her brother Ben’s life has crashed; he’s lost his job with a top investment bank and can’t find another, and he has become perilously dependent on over-the-counter painkillers.

To make matters worse, he’s stuck in a negative equity London flat with his ex-girlfriend Julia, an intellectual and ambitious city lawyer, described by mum as his ‘Arctic roll,’ a thin coating of sweet but mostly ice.

As for Fran, she has worries of her own, not least the fuss that is being made over her birthday.

She doesn’t feel old but husband Duncan seems to be ageing rapidly. His memory isn’t what it was – he can’t do simple things like fill in a form and fill up with petrol and he takes the wrong road when driving only yards from home.

Why does he think they’ve been to Florence and who on earth is Alexa?

Duncan may be getting senile but Fran’s certainly not yet ready to become one of the invisible, indistinguishable elderly.

We are going to have to travel back in time to make sense of it all and one thing’s for sure...this is going to be a party no-one can forget.

Funny, perceptive and unexpectedly touching.

(Headline Review, paperback, £7.99)