Patrick Gale produces finely observed confections with an undertow of trouble that appeal to the chattering classes. Surface pleasures are lightly weighted with issues (disability, sexuality, mental health), while a tendency towards melancholic self-examination provides ballast to the conversations, professional lives and dietary habits of a cast of largely privileged intelligentsia. Gale had rumbled on, quietly and dependably trailing a small following, for 23 years. Then, with his recent Richard and Judy bestseller Notes from an Exhibition, he broke through to an entirely new readership. This, his 15th novel, is the follow-up, and although the pressure is on to be commercially successful, he doggedly inhabits the quieter recesses of his comfort zone. The Whole Day Through is a restrained novel, its pitch steady, unremarkable and firmly tethered to reality. Laura Lewis, now in her mid-40s, has moved from a life of independence and dead-end affairs in Paris to care for her mother at home in Winchester. She is a self-employed accountant on a small income, and her mothers house provides accommodation otherwise unaffordable to her, while she in turn has saved the osteoporosis-stricken but mentally still brilliant Professor Jellicoe from the indignities of an institution. Childhood legacies tend to be thoroughly examined by Gale as the basis of his characters psyches, and Laura’s upbringing as the accidental offspring of a pair of academics – Islington-dwelling eccentrics and enthusiastic naturists – has left her sexually uninhibited but invested with a certain coldness. She has dated married men and failed to find commitment, her adult life “mapped out in relationships not achievements”. While attending a hospital appointment with her mother, Laura bumps into Ben, her boyfriend from her time as an Oxford undergraduate, and agrees to have dinner with him. Ben, formerly an HIV consultant, now working in more basic genito-urinary medicine, has also returned to Winchester in the guise of carer, in this case for a gay younger brother with Mosaic Downs Syndrome. At university Ben had dumped Laura after a period of passion and domesticity, nominally for the sake of his medical studies – only to date the decorative but mildly dim Chloe, his future wife. At the point at which he runs into Laura again, Ben has used his brothers trauma over their mothers death as an excuse to escape the incompatibilities of his 20-year marriage. Living in a limbo with reduced career opportunities while Chloe waits in London for him to resolve their problems, Ben is determined to be honourable, yet hides behind his role as carer. The novel follows the stories of Laura’s and Ben’s pasts, the two narrative strands inexorably inching towards each other, and is loosely structured around the events of one summer’s day. Gale’s use of time is so seamless that decades are crossed and encapsulated without resort to either obvious flashback or chronological signposting. This time travelling is so effective that only chapter headings remind the reader of the single day that shapes the novel, the intricacy of the conjuring act apparent only retrospectively. Ben and Laura’s resuscitated affair is restricted by family commitments, and Laura finds herself creeping round her mother like a disobedient child. Beneath the weariness, pragmatism and even ridiculousness of this relationship of later life, true love clearly simmers but searches for expression. In the novel’s one mild ruffle of drama, Ben’s brother inadvertently dispatches the draft of a love letter to the wrong recipient, and the narrative is forced to twist, throwing up questions of romance versus duty. As a “good man”, Ben shows that the humdrum must often take precedence over the exalted. The Whole Day Through is about obligation, missed opportunity, and the danger of ending up with the wrong person. This is a wry, clever, faultlessly crafted mini-soap threaded with sadness. It is beautifully written, precisely nuanced and assured. Very little happens, yet it rolls along, all Proms on the radio, good food, yesterday’s Rioja, and a gay twist thrown in. Gale is an empathetic writer with an impressive knowledge of how minds and relationships work. In its theme and tone, The Whole Day Through is reminiscent of Tessa Hadley’s The Master Bedroom. In fact, Gale’s prose style and preoccupations strongly echo Hadley’s, without the latter’s class flexibility. Both novelists reflect a demographic and its concerns: the care of long-lived parents by offspring in early middle age – hardly an inviting subject but an increasingly common one. Generally hovering between Jilly Cooper and Alan Hollinghurst, Gale produces the perfect Dordogne read. He can barely be faulted for what he does, his sparkling clean realism delicious while it lasts.

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