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Twenty years of marriage to older Max has seen a busy, contented Prue through the stresses of a resentful stepdaughter and motherhood. Now, Violet has returned with her new husband from New York and, suddenly, Prue is precipitated into a secret life.
The small village in Hampshire and the city are very different places and, as Prue now moves between the two, she traces the boundaries between innocence and difficult knowledge, between the gluttony and surrender of desire and the stark realities that result. Pinpointing the battleground of the modern – and second – marriage, this is a novel of the extraordinary bargains and accommodations that are struck between people who love one another.
Read An Extract
On Thursday morning, Edward woke late and refused his milk, screwing up his mouth and pushing aside the bottle. Tramliners dribbled down his cheeks and on to Prue’s sleeve. She put the bottle down to examine him more closely – and a fist squeezed in her chest. There was a blue shade to the baby’s mouth, and a red flush on cheeks normally like pale shells. He did not look well and when Prue took the minute hand in her own and gently felt the matchstick fingers, her flesh made contact with burning heat. Without thinking twice, she phoned the doctor.
After an interminable wait in a hot, noisy, overflowing surgery, a young and indifferent-seemed doctor took a look at Edward. Just a passing temperature, she informed Prue. Babies do that. It always seems worse than it is. Give him plenty of fluid and don’t bundle him up in too much clothing.
her coolness only intensified Prue’s anxiety, otherwise she might have laughed at the cheek of the dewy-behind-the-ears patronage. Instead, she drove back to Austen Road and spent an uneasy morning hovering over the cot. From time to time, Edward wailed and his body twitched in between fractured dozing. Each time Prue forced Dioralyte down him, he vomited.
At half past three, Prue was once again on the phone to the doctor. The receptionist, who could detect genuine panic from ‘panic’, promised to talk to the doctor when she had a moment.
An hour passed. Prue sponged the little body with warm water and, in her fright, she imagined that flesh had already slipped from the bird-like bones, and the frog stomach was hollowing – like the poppyhead which ejects its seeds and dies.
Not to worry, that wretched doctor had said. Babies do this. Yes, they do. Babies do this and have died. Think, think of the millions of babies’ bodies which have piled up during the centuries.
Edward seemed to appreciate his blanket bath, for he sighed after she had finished, tucked his hand up by his neck and fell asleep.
Prue got herself some tea.
Edward’s piercing wails interrupted her and she rushed into the nursery. The baby was bright red and had been violently sick. Prue phoned Jamie.
‘I think he needs to get to hospital.’
Jamie did not hesitate. ‘Get a taxi to St Thomas’s. I’ll meet you there.’
He was waiting by the time Prue arrived, white and anxious-looking. ‘I’ve cleared it with the receptionist,’ he said, taking the baby from her. ‘We go straight in.’
Prue discovered she was trembling.
Jamie held Edward while the doctor examined him. he looked up once to thank Prue, otherwise he concentrated on his son. Prue held her shaking hands tight, and went outside to wait.
Casualty was awash with people, sitting on benches in the corridor in various states of dejection. Each time a nurse or a doctor went by, they looked up. Along with their bodies, perhaps they were hoping that their spirits would be patched up as well.
Prue closed her eyes and opened them when Jamie emerged, walked over to her and took her hand in his. ‘Don’t fret. They think it’s only a twenty-four-hour bug.’
He was followed by the doctor, and a nurse hovering at his heels carrying Edward.
‘Mr Beckett, you can take him home now. We’ve given him a thorough examination and paracetamol to bring down his temperature. He is a little dehydrated so you must try to get some liquid into him. If you’re worried bring him back.’
They made the journey home in the taxi in virtual silence. Prue leant back against the seat and closed her eyes, luxuriating in relief. Her eyes opened a crack and she found herself observing Jamie, narrowed to a squarish shape which smelt of expensive aftershave and a whiff of cigar. Emptied of everything, she absorbed the contrast of his brown hair against his navy coat, the skin tones and the way in which his big, elegant hands emerged from his cuffs.
‘Why are you looking at me, Prue?’
Prue’s treacherous hands trembled in her lap. ‘Am I?’
Light-headed and consequently reckless in the aftermatch of adrenalin, Jamie leant over, pulled Prue towards him and kissed her.
‘Oh, Prue, oh, Prue,’ he muttered into the white skin of her neck, relief for his son translating itself into physical need.
She felt her own body burn with desire and knew that if she gave it only the slightest leeway, pandered to it in the minutest form, it would make her forget that she was someone else’s wife, and that Jamie was her stepdaughter’s husband.
Back at the house, Prue fed Edward boiled water and Dioralyte, and Jamie hunted for a bottle of sherry.
‘It’s only five o’clock but…’ Prue drained her glass.
Jamie said he would ring Violet because she would want to come home. A conversation took place on the drawing-room phone with a great many pauses. Prue concentrated on Edward who was taking his time, the sherry warming her gullet, sweet and wonderfully welcome.
Jamie returned and poured himself a glass. ‘Violet isn’t coming back till tomorrow. It would be difficult to leave as there’s a big dinner tonight, especially if Edward is over the worst.’
Prue found it impossible to gauge his expression. Instead she held out her glass for a refill.
‘I can’t,’ Prue said gently when Jamie appeared in her bedroom in the small hours as she lay thinking about him.
He looked down at the coils of hair and rounded shoulder illuminated by the light from the corridor, and his gaze travelled down the shape under the bedclothes.
‘No,’ he agreed, but in his imagination he was imprisoning the full, tempting breasts under the white cotton and the unknown territory of her body with his own. He bent over, and brushed her cheek with a finger.
Chrysalis-like, the sheets enclosed her body. She felt their weave against her skin, smelt the detergent and wool in the blanket. In the dark, the sheet across the window became a mask, hiding the slippery feelings and heated imaginations that raged behind it.
Prue had imagined that her desire centred solely on Max. It was a shock to discover that this was not true.
Modern marriage and its compromises... a terrific, compassionate, compelling novel.
A gem, filled with keen observations and uncanny descriptions.
Cleveland Plain Dealer
Adultery... handled with care and moral intelligence. What a good writer Buchan is.
A powerful story: wise, observant, deeply-felt, with elements all women will recognise with a smile - or a shudder. Very highly recommended.
Good Book Guide
Is Buchan the new Trollope?... a terrific new novel... Buchan's compassionate novel has an integral wisdom.
The allure lies in the disparity between what its heroine is supposed to be and what she does. The intracicies of Prue's love affair keep the novel bowling along.
Beautifully written with not a word wasted, Perfect Love is as addictive as any affair.