Review: The Faithful Couple

Decades of double trouble


By AD Miller
Little, Brown, £16.99

AD Miller's first book, The Earl of Petticoat Lane, was a shmatte-to-riches family memoir, charting his grandfather's rise via the knickers business from barrow-boy to society ball-goer. It was followed five years later by a novel, Snowdrops, which drew readers into a thriller-like story of seduction and corruption in contemporary Russia, winning a place on the 2011 Man Booker Prize shortlist. Now comes a third book and it's equally unexpected, equally assured.

A bromance at heart, The Faithful Couple spans almost 20 years in the lives of two young men, Neil and Adam. They're not the duo of the title, however - that name belongs to a pair of towering trees that have grown so close together, fighting for space and sunlight in Yosemite's Mariposa Grove, that their trunks have fused at the base. In this "rivalrous embrace" they loom presciently in the background of one of the earliest photos of Neil and Adam, taken a week or so after they meet in a hostel in San Diego.

Floppy-haired and privately educated, Home Counties Adam has just graduated; motherless Neil, a year ahead, has been working as a pharmaceuticals salesman and living with his dad in Harrow. They're a decidedly odd couple - "like a whim of evolution, a platypus or an anteater" - and their fidelity to this unexpected friendship will be sorely tested as careers and relationships evolve, buffeted by external forces like the dotcom bubble, the London Tube bombings and the Great Recession. Yet it's something that happens at the very start, just a few hours after that photo is taken, that will ultimately derail them.

What begins as a lark - the two of them fooling around with a girl on their Yosemite trip - quickly becomes a competition: which of them will get to take her back to his tent? At some point over the course of the evening, Adam learns that the girl is far younger than they've let themselves believe. He fails to tell Neil, and the next morning, the girl's father threatens to call the police. The father also tells Adam something that will come to haunt him, echoing like a curse back in London: "One day you'll have your own. I hope you find out how this feels."

The episode becomes their shared, unexamined secret as the pair advance through their 20s. But, as the city around them booms, and Adam becomes acquainted with failure, Neil with success, the dynamic of their friendship pivots, and they find that they've outgrown the roles they'd originally assigned to one another.

For Adam, there's also the burden - and power - of his still not having told Neil that he knew the Yosemite girl's real age.

Miller is an astute observer of tangled emotions as well as class, a sharp awareness of which permeates the novel. There are other fine observations along the way, too - a toddler's progress across a hallway, for instance, is described as "hurry with a hint of dance".

Male bonds are the subject of some enduring literature, Waugh's Brideshead Revisited and William Maxwell's The Folded Leaf being but two examples.

That's impressive company but, while it isn't quite flawless - the catalyst for resolution feels a little convenient, a little too hastily dispatched - The Faithful Couple brilliantly dramatises the moral complexity of a friendship sealed by guilt and betrayal.

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