The Tennis Party – Madeleine Wickham

The Tennis Party is a very well written book which would make a great play. The characters were vividly drawn and viciously skewer rich middle class British society, both at the time and today. It’s all set over one weekend and in one house (which is partly why I think it would translate well onto the stage, it sort of reminds me of the Cluedo film and also An Inspector Calls). It’s about a tennis party and the couples (and their children) and the dynamics and relationships between them. There’s even a mystery guest – Ella, Charles’  ex-wife turns up, invited mischievously by one of the children.

The characters are what make it such an awesome book: naive Stephen and his unambitious wife, vulgar Caroline, the ridiculous fragile Cressida, fallible Patrick and the disgusting Charles – the real villain of the story. And above all, Ella. Ella, ella, ella, who makes my heart soar and was the cherry on the top of this fantastic story. A lot of people (I have been reading internet reviews) seem to feel that the revelation at the end of the story was obvious and an anti climax and of course it was, but they’re missing the point entirely – the revelation isn’t that Ella is in a lesbian relationship, the revelation is that she came back to England in order to right wrongs and deal out justice. And it’s only if you think about what happened to the other characters that you realise the full extent of her revenge.

Patrick (the host of the tennis party) is another one of my favourite characters, he’s a ruthless salesman obsessed with profits and climbing the social ladder who ends up with the harsh light of reality revealing him to be exactly what he is – thoughtless, selfish, self-obsessed and incredibly greedy. And yet at the end of it Annie and Stephen, the two most arguably ‘good’ characters end up accepting who he is and forgiving him, and his wife Caroline realises that it’s not DESPITE what he is that she loves him, it’s because of what he is. He ends up sending Annie and Stephen’s disabled daughter to a private school and although he was initially coerced into it he ends up feeling good about it and feeling pleased for the daughter, Nicola.

Caroline is crude, vulgar, opinionated and judgmental and has her loyalty and fierceness revealed and her insecurities delved into in excruciating circumstances. Stephen, a povery stricken student, is naive, thoughtless and frankly rather stupid. I mean academically he’s obviously brilliant, but he doesn’t seem to have any real world common sense at all. He’s swept away on a wave of envy and greed, and ends up allowing Patrick to talk him into remortgaging his house without discussing it with his wife, Annie. Annie is the least interesting character and the softest most traditionally feminine character, she’s a mother first and foremost and her faults don’t run as deeply as the other characters’.

Cressida is Charles’ wife, and is very interesting – completely emotionally retarded, with very little idea of the real world. She ends up having to do an awful lot of growing up and, being Charles’ wife, she ends up going through fire more than all the other characters. She’s far more child-like than the children themselves, particularly striking when compared to Annie and Stephen’s disabled daughter Nicola. At the end of it, despite being stripped bare, hints of her maturing character come through.

Really that’s what links all of these characters. After a string of disasters, fights, shouting matches, back stabbing, hatred, tears and although their bad points are perhaps excessively dwelt on, their good points come through and they are shown and accepted and loved by one another for what they actually are. They go through hell, their characters develop and they come out stronger and more likeable after their ordeals. And in the end they all have hope and redemption.

All apart from Charles, Ella’s ex-husband and Cressida’s current husband. Charles is slowly, rhythmically and systematically destroyed, layer after layer. He starts off as the most strong, likeable character and in the end all we are left with is shallowness and vapidity, greed and despair, desolation and ruin and a complete and heartbreaking lack of love. He, alone and away from all the others is hated and has no support and is not thought of well by a single other person. All because of Ella, although it’s very subtly done. And the way she slips out and leaves reminds me of a black widow, a serial killer or a spy of some kind. She’s not at all what she seems, beautiful and warm and sunny, so accepting and exciting and well travelled. She doesn’t seem human, it’s like An Inspector Calls or something.

Ella’s character is deliberately left vague. She’s written as being the most attractive and sweet looking of the women, and that’s not by chance – it makes her ruthless personality even more striking at the end of the book. She’s in disguise, and she starts off with all of the characters (apart from Cressida) liking her. They are taken back by how much she has changed and how independent and strong she is, and how completely indifferent she is to them. It’s mesmorising, how she behaves in exactly the same way to all of the characters regardless of whether they currently like her or hate her.

Ella, and by proxy Charles’ destruction, is why I love this book. And I believe it’s why the average chick lit crowd have disliked it, it doesn’t seem to have been all that well received. Comments on the internet were mostly complaints how it didn’t seem to be about anything and was overly negative and left them cold.

So I wonder why I liked the characters in The Tennis Party so much and hated the characters in the Shopaholic series so much (written by Madeleine Wickham under the name Sophie Kinsella) when they are so much more popular. The heroine of the Shopaholic series, Rebecca Bloomwood seems like a humourless version of Bridget Jones. She’s boring and tame. I find the books quite hard to read because I dislike the characters so much. They are so flat and most of the Tennis Party characters (you’ll notice I’ve not mentioned Don or Valerie or whatever her name was) are so layered, if rather darker. I’m genuinely confused that I seem to be in such a minority here. Anybody else like chick lit with a dark undercurrent a la Madeleine Wickham? I have to have my enjoyable escapism at least remotely believable and the Shopaholic series is jarringly un-engaging.

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