The downside of loving a book is finding a follow up that won’t disappoint. Facing this problem after finishing The Art Lover, I decided to play “safe”. While I knew the “literary” quality wouldn’t compare, I have always enjoyed Mike Gayle’s books so I chose his The Stag and Hen Weekend.
It’s a book I’ve had for several months but had hesitated to read, but why the hesitation?
It was caused by the structure of the book. It tells the stories of soon-to-be-weds Phil and Helen and their respective pre-wedding party weekends. The reader is given the choice of which of these separate accounts to read first.
They are printed back to back, Helen’s story has a pink cover, Phil’s blue. When one has been finished the reader turns the book around and reads the other. But which to start first? The choice makes a real difference; the reading of the first part will affect how we’ll perceive events in the other. It’s a choice that can only be made once – we can never go back to see how things could have seemed different if we’d chosen the other starting point.
Eventually my choice was made for the most trivial and non-literary of reasons. The pink side had a small barcode – something that usually appears on the back of the book, so I chose to start with Phil’s story (the blue cover).
I’ve written about Gayle’s books before on my original blog site*. They all involve everyday relationships between close friends and the effects of romantic complications. This book starts eight years into the relationship of Phil and Helen, one week before their planned wedding.
Phil is being taken away by his friends to Amsterdam for a “stag weekend”. Helen’s friends are taking her to a “hen’s weekend” at a luxury hotel and spa in the Derbyshire Peak District. Complications arise when the past starts to disrupt both of their weekend celebrations and make them question their plans for the future.
The beginning of the Phil’s story disappointed me. I found the characters and their interaction unconvincing. Maybe the relationship between Phil and his friends (all approaching 40 but acting like mid-teenagers) was too different to my personal experience. Or maybe the opening scenes were too cluttered with characters – necessary considering the circumstances (several friends celebrating), but difficult to present effectively if every one of them is given an active voice: something Gayle tried to do.
For me this side of the story didn’t really pick up until the introduction of an “enigma” related to the past when Phil and his friends meet a vaguely familiar woman at a night club. From this point I started to see some of the qualities I’d appreciated in Gayle’s other books. He can write convincing and compelling one on one interaction between men and women.
I found Helen’s story was written more evenly, without the stylistic highs and lows of Phil’s half of the book. But I felt her story lacked the mild intrigue of Phil’s story. I’d already been made aware of significant things via Phil (although partially misrepresented by Phil and his companions’ wrong conclusions).
Quite early into the book I started to wonder about the ending(s). How could each part have a satisfactory ending and still leave enough questions to be resolved at the end of the other? I couldn’t see there being a nice neat conclusion and I wasn’t wrong – but I was surprised at how effectively the ending was handled.
For me it was the most thought provoking part of the book.