Book Review: After the Party by Cressida Connolly

After the PartyAbout the Book

‘Had it not been for my weakness, someone who is now dead could still be alive. That is what I believed and consequently lived with every day in prison.’

It is the summer of 1938 and Phyllis Forrester has returned to England after years abroad. Moving into her sister’s grand country house, she soon finds herself entangled in a new world of idealistic beliefs and seemingly innocent friendships. Fevered talk of another war infiltrates their small, privileged circle, giving way to a thrilling solution: a great and charismatic leader, who will restore England to its former glory.

At a party hosted by her new friends, Phyllis lets down her guard for a single moment, with devastating consequences. Years later, Phyllis, alone and embittered, recounts the dramatic events which led to her imprisonment and changed the course of her life forever.

Format: Hardcover, ebook (272 pp.)    Publisher: Viking
Published: 7th June 2018                         Genre: Historical Fiction

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My Review

It’s 1938 and returning to England from abroad, Phyllis gets involved with helping her sister, Nina, organise the summer camp Nina runs as part of her ‘peace work’ for a political movement. For quite a while the identity of the charismatic individual who heads the movement, referred to only as ‘the Leader’, is not revealed, although readers will probably have their suspicions given some of the unpalatable views espoused and the period in which the events take place.  What the book does well is reflect the range of views that prevailed at the time.  How many people were fearful of the prospect of war not so much because they were advocates of appeasement or supporters of the Nazi regime but because they feared the upheaval of war, remembering only too well the carnage wrought by the First World War.

I really enjoyed the way the book explores the changing dynamics of the relationship between the sisters – Phyllis, Nina and Patricia – and their different characters.  Phyllis is the peacemaker of the trio, trying to accommodate other’s wishes.  ‘I always wanted to be friends with both my sisters.  Perhaps that was the source, really, of all the troubles of my life.’

It has to be said that the social circle the sisters move in, particularly Patricia, is not populated by the nicest of people.  It is made up of individuals who don’t really seem to like each other that much but preserve the social niceties whilst attending dinner parties and the like.  Gossipy anecdotes, cruel little asides, mockery and petty snobbery seem to be the order of the day.   It’s a picture of a section of society, with their cooks, parlour maids and drivers, which despite all the airs and graces seem removed from the everyday lives and experiences of most people.    The sort of people who live in houses with a ‘morning room’, such as the house Phyllis’s husband, Hugh, plans to build.  ‘In the mornings Phyllis would be able to take her coffee and write her letters there; perhaps they might install a nice little sofa too, where she might like to sew or read.’

The book opens in 1979 as Phyllis recounts her memories of the period just before the Second World War and during the War itself to an unnamed and unidentified individual researching the history of that time.  What follow are extensive flashbacks as Phyllis recalls the events of that time, both public and private.   Some of what she recalls, especially the circumstances of her imprisonment, was certainly new to me and rather an eye-opener.  These sections of the book have a real feeling of authenticity, albeit the events described are slightly bizarre at times.

The author is a skilful writer; I especially liked the imaginative descriptions and quirky similes.  A few of my favourites:
Nina’s house stood a little way along from the garage, set back from the road politely, like someone waiting to be introduced.’
‘The tide was out and little boats lolled on their sides in their sandy mud, like the tongues of overheated dogs.’
‘There were blackberries plumping in the hedgerows now and buddleia, giving off a faint scent like pencil sharpenings.’

Although there were elements of After the Party I very much enjoyed, overall I was left with a slight sense of disappointment, the feeling that the book was less than the sum of its parts.  For example, the ‘moment of weakness’ referred to in the blurb seems a minor misdemeanour on Phyllis’s part and one in which she is not really the most guilty party or responsible for what follows.  Yet it seems to weigh on her conscience for the rest of her life so much so that she treats her draconian imprisonment as justified punishment.  Later Phyllis experiences what she views as a ‘betrayal’ but which did not really to amount to anything like that, it seemed to me.   I learned a lot from reading After the Party but wanted to feel more enthusiastic about the story than I did.

I received a review copy courtesy of publishers, Penguin Books UK/Viking, and NetGalley in return for an honest and unbiased review.

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About the Author

Cressida Connolly is a reviewer and journalist, who has written for Vogue, The Telegraph, the Spectator, The Guardian and numerous other publications.

Cressida is the author of three books: The Happiest Days, which won the MacMillan/PEN Award, The Rare and the Beautiful and My Former Heart. Cressida is the daughter of writer Cyril Connolly. In 1985 she married Worcestershire farmer Charles Hudson. They have three children.

Connect with Cressida

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6 thoughts on “Book Review: After the Party by Cressida Connolly

  1. Hi Cathy, just finished the book and then read your review, which I broadly agree with, including your sense of disappointment, except for a different reason.

    I feel Connolly is a powerful, accomplished writer, and my sadness is for what a wasted life the heroine led. I agree that her guilt over her secret ‘crime’ was unwarranted, and yet she lacked the self awareness about the one thing she could have felt guilty about: her devotion to Mosley, and to the fascist party. (Which, by the way, made the title so brilliant, I felt).

    As readers, we expect to go on a journey with the hero or heroine, learn something, feel brave at the moment they realise they must act, to seize the moment. Save the day.

    Poor Phyllis learns nothing, saves no one. Least of all, herself.

    Still, this novel is hauntingly powerful. Despite, or maybe because of, feeling utterly disappointing.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for taking the time to read my review (which seems to be one of my most read blog posts for some strange reason!) and for your thoughtful comments on it and the book. I really admired the writing as well but I just felt a sense of ‘what could have been’ when I finished the book. However, perhaps the author intended to leave the reader with a feeling of sadness at, as you say, Phyllis’s wasted life.


  2. That’s it!

    Thanks for your quick reply. I’ve heard of you, following you now, sending this on to a few friends, and making a New Year’s Resolution to at least try to make a dent in your list from 2018.

    Thanks for these reviews. Wishing you all the best, &

    Happy New Year!

    Liked by 1 person

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