I remember Neil made a show of checking his watch that day; then, facing me as if I were a point-blank gun barrel, shouted his invitation to lunch. The whole staff turned to stare. He must've thought I couldn't hear with my earphones in. Poor fellow blushed so hard I thought his head might pop off.
Neil and Rachel (aka Rae) met and got married when Rae was in her forties - much later than is considered the "normal" age for first marriages. Rae is a writer, an introvert who preferred to stay home in her PJs than meet people. Neil was more outgoing, loved cooking and hosted dinners often for their friends and acquaintances. Into this marriage, Neil brings the baggage of his long friendship with Mike, the owner of an aquarium business in downtown, and the complicated relationship between Mike and his wife, Tilda. At the moment however, something terrible had already happened, involving Mike and Tilda - something hinted at a lot, while Neil preps dinner for a gathering they were going to host soon.
I was pulled into this book mainly because of its blurb, which mentioned something of a dinner involving friends, and built a lot of anticipation over that dinner. The blurb also indicated "a mysterious catastrophe" that "propels all five individuals into uncharted realities". While that's somewhat true, the blurb in itself is heavily misleading - because the dinner in question is really nothing more than a prop for Neil to narrate a story. The crux of the plot happens before and after the dinner. I also didn't find the fifth person (Mike/Tilda's daughter Addie) to be very important to the plot. I don't typically read blurbs, except when checking out review books (so that I can gauge my interest) and the summary that I read of this book felt erroneous to me.
Make it Stay is very short - just 164 pages - it packs a wallop right from the moment Neil and Rae settle down to prepare dinner for friends, until the end, when the fortunes of the characters are presented. Rae urges Neil to tell her the whole story of Mike and Tilda, and through Neil's eyes, we begin to see this dynamic couple that appeared more mismatched than made in heaven.
Mike and Tilda were heavily flawed characters, and that made them all the more believable. Mike had a very Santa Claus'-ish personality - very helpful, a huge HA! that either cracked everyone up or scared them out of their wits. He loved fishes and had an impressive collection of aquatic life swimming away in the aquariums in his shop. He was however a womanizer - a fact that Tilda suspected for very long. Tilda, on the other hand, oozed an air of indifference at all times. She was on booze and cigarettes most of the time, and reeking of bad breath as well. One night, someone commits a horrendous act that forever damages Mike - an act that Rae suspects Tilda to be guilty of, but there are no proofs. This tragedy has several long-lasting repercussions on Mike, Tilda, Neil and Rae, and while it is the turning point of the book, I wouldn't be quick to say that it was the pivotal event.
I enjoyed this book far more than I was expecting to. The underlying theme was that of friendship and how it is affected post-marriage. To any marriage, both members bring in their own friendships - some survive, some don't. Both members wish that their other half will love their friends as much as they do. Neil was always under the impression that Rae didn't care for Mike, who happens to be one of the most important people in Neil's life. Rae defends herself by saying that she prefers books to people. Rae happens to be the narrator, and in most books, the narrator is who I identify with. However, in this case, I really disliked Rae (in fact, more than Mike and Tilda). I found Rae too prejudiced and slightly racist. She was quick to bundle up people into their cultural identities, even going so far as to decorate Tilda as bisexual simply because Tilda preferred to dress in men's clothes, and calling Mike a 200-pound infant for reasons I don't want to mention here, but which I found incredibly bad in taste.
Although this is a small book, I took a long time getting through the first half. The writing was a lot more involved than I expected, but it was still very beautiful. I got the impression that Joan Frank didn't carelessly wield words to form the book, but rather carefully stitched them together to produce this beautiful story. I also loved the themes explored in this book - the role of friendship and marriage, the question of whether to like or hate a person who is guilty of immoral acts but is the most wonderful person otherwise. As Neil says,
When you've known someone that long, after a point it can't matter anymore how crazy they are.
I received this book for free for review from the publisher via TLC Book Tours.