Book Review: ‘Other People Manage’ by Ellen Hawley

My thanks to Rebecca Gray at Ruth Killick Publicity for the uncorrected proof copy of this book in return for unbiased feedback prior to its publication next year.

Publication date: 14th April 2022:
Swift Press

It’s the late 70s when Marge meets Peg at the Women’s Coffee House, which is less a place to drink coffee than a place where two women can dance together safely […] For the next twenty years, they stay together, through the challenges any couple faces and the ones no one expects: a three-night stand refuses to stop standing, threatening to destroy their relationship before it starts… and Peg’s sister abandons her children, leaving the family to fill in as best they can. […] Then one day things change, and Marge has to work out what she’s left with – and if she still belongs to the family she’s adopted as her own.

Reading Other People Manage felt like reading a letter from a close friend. I was immediately drawn into Marge’s life – the story is told from her perspective – and I was on her (and Peg’s) side from the get-go. As they embarked on their life together, it was heartening and humbling to see how the lives of those around them affected theirs, with a worrying emphasis on Peg’s ex-cum-stalker and, later the ripples left by a break-down in Peg’s immediate family.

As two likeable, natural, everyday people (Marge drives a bus and Peg is training to become a therapist) who simply happen to fall in love then set about engineering a shared life together, Marge’s observations on the tiniest details of her life with Peg is so relatable that there was something to empathise with on every page; not least here, where Marge reflects:

“I noticed that she [Peg] let the dishes pile up in her kitchen until she ran out of either plates or the space to stack them in, that if she turned the vacuum on and then off she thought the apartment was clean. Silly things. Human things. They didn’t turn me away from her but they settled me into a way of seeing her that didn’t ask her to be perfect.”

A little later, when they’re living together, Marge confides:

…in the common insanity of the human species – instead of getting closer we turned on each other […] We started with the usual stuff. I walked in the door and found Peg’s winter jacket on the floor and it didn’t charm me the way it had that first night. Or I found a half-empty cup of coffee stranded on the bathtub rim. Or else it was money...”

And it’s this lovely confidential-conversational quality of the writing that really sucked me in. I actually believed, as I neared the end (and 200 pages isn’t nearly enough time to spend in such company) that Marge was an actual friend of mine. I wanted to call her up to make sure she was okay. There’s a perfect summing-up of the story, and life in general, towards the end of the book, where Marge says:

We’re wired for that [learning to love]. We’re helpless. We count up all the ways that people can leave us, all the ways that people aren’t what we wanted them to be, all the ways that we’re not what we wanted to be or what they need us to be, and with all our flaws we love them anyway. It may not be good enough but it’s what we have.

Other People Manage is one of those rare reads that makes you feel as though you’ve sunk into a sumptuous armchair (not an expensive armchair, just an INCREDIBLY comfortable one) knowing you can relax; you’re being taken on a fictional journey with a master storyteller at the wheel. Okay, so the chair turned into a car somewhere along the way, but there’s no such thing as too many (or even mixed) metaphors.

So, lucky for me that I got to read a book not released until next year, but ultimately LUCKY YOU for getting to read it for the first time!

For fans of Anne Tyler and Elizabeth Strout, this book has a big heart with even bigger characters, and I know I’ll be reading it again. And passing it on.

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