Although Neil and Rae have been married for years when Joan Frank's novel Make It Stay opens, they married late and Neil already had a long-standing, tightly woven friendship with Mike and a rather easy cameraderie with Mike's wife Tilda despite her apparent darkness and unlikability when he and Rae married. As they prepare for a dinner party, Rae cautiously teases the complicated back-story of Mike and Tilda out of Neil. And so the reader is given both a view of the past Mike as he was when Neil met him, boisterous and effusive, ebullent and outgoing, and of the present day Mike who has been felled by a stroke, retaining only his booming laugh and his pleasure in his dearest friendships.
Neil's story tells of the seemingly mismatched Mike and Tilda's relationship and long marriage and it is merged seamlessly with the small judgments that Rae makes on these two oldest of Neil's friends. As Neil muses on the past and Rae delicately manipulates the present, more is revealed of these two characters in their reactions to Mike and Tilda than might initially be thought. Rae is an introvert, a writer, and slow to warm up to others. Neil is a fiercely loyal friend happiest when he is surrounded by those he loves, quietly similar to Mike in that way. The tale of Mike and Tilda brings to light cracks in Neil and Rae's marriage, highlighting the ways in which their differences have sent them down parallel but diverging paths. As they examine the meanings and perspective of love, friendship and loss, their own relationship is very much in jeopardy.
This is a very slight book but it packs quite a wallop. Frank's writing is to be savoured, each word carefully chosen and considered. Her descriptions are not overdone but are incredibly vivid and alive. The novel is definitely character driven rather than plot-heavy, musing on the ephemerality of life, the strength of connection we feel to others, the power of the bonds of deep and true friendship, and the inexactitude of judgment. Neil, Rae, and Mike are all complex and fleshed out characters. Tilda is less so but one of her chief traits is her sullen unknowability, making this omission understandable even if it consigns her to being disliked by Rae and having that dislike be telegraphed to and shared by the reader. The sense of life being so fleeting and in so many ways futile pervades the story with a melancholy air. No one, no matter how much they might desire it, can ultimately "make it stay."
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Thanks to Trish from TLC Book Tours and the publisher for sending me a copy of this book to review.