Chair of the Judges, Professor Kate Williams, said: “It’s a fantastic shortlist; exciting, vibrant, adventurous. We fell totally in love with these books and the amazing worlds they created. These books are fiction at its best – brilliant, courageous and utterly captivating.”
There is a lot of backstory, and for the first quarter of the novel it feels as though it isn’t going anywhere. But even then, when the story is stuck in the past, Evans brings her characters out with verve and aplomb... The language Evans uses to introduce them and their world is casual, loose, glittering with detail and tossed-off characterisation... The energy and flow of Evans’ writing in describing contemporary life is one of the prime appeals of Ordinary People, a novel guided by its own soundtrack that’s available as a Spotify playlist. (The title comes from John Legend’s all-conquering 2004 song.) Occasionally exuberance overtakes sense and Evans’ desire not to use clichés makes the reader stumble... But the characters and plot take over, and the climax of the story pulls it in an entirely unexpected direction of sinister happenings, mental imbalance and a parent’s worst nightmares... In the end it’s the human story that wins the reader over and makes the plaudits seem deserved.
The novel’s title refers to a John Legend ballad about the struggle to keep a relationship alive once the initial passion subsides. Despite the Obama party that opens the novel and the fact that most of its central characters are black, “Ordinary People” doesn’t turn out to be the big, meaty social novel that the first pages promise, but a rambling, smallish drama of domesticity and its discontents...Searching, dissatisfied women have traditionally made fascinating heroines because they’ve challenged stultifying cultural scripts. But the most intriguing character in “Ordinary People” isn’t Melissa, chafing at constraints and looking for someone to blame. It’s cleareyed Stephanie, who has surveyed the options, chosen her life and accepted its limitations. Initially, her “aptitude for contentment” seems less seductive and mysterious than Melissa’s restlessness. By the end of this novel, it seems far more so.
Evans is a superb writer of emotional moments: how enchanting they are, how they both resist and inspire description. Being so engrossed in the here and now, the 300 pages of Ordinary People make a fairly distracted collective; the couples’ interactions are a little blandly alike, and there’s a subplot about a haunted house that never quite fits in. But Evans’s prose is always magnificent, composed and unshowy; it’s as if she measured each sentence, trimmed the excess weight, then fitted it into place
In his 2004 song “Ordinary People”, John Legend portrays the bittersweet stage of a romance past its first flush, when the mess of everyday life is setting in. “Passed the infatuation phase”, he sings, “Seems like we argue every day.” Diana Evans borrows his song’s title and theme for her exuberant third novel, about midlife relationship malaise. The shadow of marital breakdown loomed around the edges of her award-winning debut novel, 2005’s 26a, which was framed by the beginning and end of Charles and Diana’s marriage (as well as Diana’s funeral) in the first and last chapters.... And yet the soap-opera trajectory of Evans’s Ordinary People has a movie quality. It could easily be reimagined for the screen, though the film would not capture the sheer energy and effervescence of Evans’s funny, sad, magnificent prose.
As with loaded guns in Chekhov plays, it’s a fair bet that if a character looks forward to smoking his last cigarette then it will be crushed in his pocket as his wife lectures him about fitted sheets. Ordinary People is a very funny book. But you’d better like your comedy acrid, bitter and spicy... There are moments where the mundane gets too much due: three pages on the make-up section of Selfridges is enough for anyone; plus some of the male dialogue doesn’t ring true. But for the most part this is a reminder of the power that only the novel has: to show you a familiar world from someone else’s perspective. And to make you cringe to your very soul.