The Good Guy by Susan Beale

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The Good Guy by Susan Beale

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Rebecca Foster
Reviewed by Rebecca Foster
Summary: For fans of Liza Klaussmann and Andria Williams, a sophisticated debut novel about a suburban American marriage under stress. It's easy to put yourself in the place of the main characters as they yearn for better lives and do their best to make amends for mistakes.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 320 Date: June 2016
Publisher: John Murray
ISBN: 9781473630338

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September 1964: an Indian summer in suburban Massachusetts. Ted McDougall is a twenty-three-year-old Goodyear tyre salesman who lives with his wife Abigail and ten-month-old daughter Mindy in the up-and-coming Elm Grove community. Both Ted and Abigail feel unappreciated in their roles. Ted knows his in-laws wanted him to become a lawyer and join Abigail's father's firm, but he's a good salesman and wishes they wouldn't look down on him for it. Meanwhile Abigail, an American history buff, can't master the domestic arts of cooking and cleaning, much as she tries, and longs to go back to school.

On this sweaty evening, Ted is dressing up for a business dinner at which he hopes to secure a big contract. After sealing the deal, his dinner partner wants to go find some girls. Ted gamely goes along and gets talking to Penny, a secretary for a Boston insurance agency; he doesn't get home until 2:30 in the morning, when a frantic Abigail blows up at him. That night sows a seed: Ted loves the sense of importance he felt at the Copley Plaza Hotel bar; he also loves the genuine admiration he sensed from Penny – rather than Abigail's and her parents' begrudging acceptance – and the ability he has to reinvent himself with her.

So instead of throwing out the glove Penny left, Cinderella-like, in his car when he drove her home that night, Ted dry-cleans it and tracks her down to return it. And thus starts an affair that will change multiple lives forever. At first it's innocent – just dinners at ethnic restaurants followed by dancing and a few stolen kisses, but no more. There's nothing wrong with that, is there? Ted thinks. Just as long as Penny remains a virgin, he's technically done no harm. But inevitably their connection grows deeper, and Ted has to spin more and more lies to maintain his two separate lives. With Penny he's who he really wants to be: he can pretend that he was once a spy, and that his little brother never drowned in that half-frozen pond.

You might think there's nothing new to add to the suburban-angst-and-adultery storyline. True, it's a plot that's been used many times before. But what Beale does so beautifully in this accomplished debut novel is to put you right into the minds of the three main characters. The close third-person narration shifts between their perspectives so you get an intimate sense of each one's longings. You understand Ted's fragile ego and desperation to make something of himself ('He'd like to be able to tell great stories. He'd like not to be boring.'); you feel Abigail's mortification at 'demonstrating, once more, her social awkwardness and feminine ineptitude' at neighbourhood ladies' get-togethers; you share Penny's swings between excitement and frustration when Ted's attentions don't lead to the expected proposal.

A few other things also set this book apart. One is the framing device of a prologue and epilogue set in 2008, showing one of the long-term effects of Ted and Penny's affair and demonstrating the story's personal resonance for the author. Another is the authentic period voices and vocabulary, often expressed in food metaphors. A few of my favourites were: a car that is 'temperamental and drank motor oil like kids drank soda pop', 'He was doing the best he could. He felt like a wad of salt-water taffy, stretched in every direction', and 'Penny was like drinking champagne – intoxicating and bubbly. Was he really supposed to spend his life eating spinach when he could be drinking champagne?' I also loved the range of settings, from the dazzling Shoppers' World mall to a beach house on Cape Cod.

The novel's title is not entirely sarcastic – we all make our mistakes, but for the most part we're doing our best. This is a story about the differences between what's easy and what's right, and the quest to make amends wherever possible. It's also a cautionary tale: be careful what you wish for, because that boring life you were so eager to escape may just be what you wanted after all. It's a delicious, slightly gossipy summer read with a Mad Men feel to it. I'd especially recommend this to readers who enjoyed The Longest Night by Andria Williams and Tigers in Red Weather by Liza Klaussmann.

Further reading suggestion: Three-Martini Lunch by Suzanne Rindell is set in a similar time period and shares the Mad Men feel.

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