Julian is clever, handsome and spoiled, a gilded youth who has all the girls wanting to mother him, and a mother who wants to mother him even more than they do. Part of his appealing vulnerability is that he has no father; another part is that he has a potentially fatal allergy to wasps. One hot summer day he is saved from anaphylactic shock by Karl, a medical student who is researching sperm motility. They become friends. Julian provides samples for Karl’s research, and — well, what Karl notices under the microscope provides the basis for the plot. You can see it coming, as the actress said to the bishop.
Julian meets Julia, eight years older, married to an abusive husband with amber eyes, a hawk called Lucifer and a freezer full of baby mice. (Would you really freeze baby mice, individually? They’re no bigger than baked beans.) Julia is everything Julian ‘ever desired: right down to the muscular brown calves that emerged from her cut-off blue jeans’. Her eyes are ‘blue as a Siamese cat’s’. Perhaps the similarity in their names is meant to imply that they are one another’s counterparts. It’s a bit odd, otherwise, and no one ever remarks on it.
Julian abandons Katie, his childhood sweetheart who has ‘yellow speckles in her eyes like grains of pollen’. She turns vengeful. He slips out of his mother’s suffocating grasp. He has already had to leave Firdaws, the beloved cottage where he grew up. He throws in his lot with Julia, who is pregnant and penniless. That baby miscarries. Five years later, during which time the penniless bit has been solved, thanks to Julian’s benevolent stepfather, Mira is born. Julian regains Firdaws — disastrously without consulting Julia. He has decided that this is the paradise in which they can lead a perfect life. Julian is keen on Milton. His mother makes a pair of clay figures for them; Julian and Julia, clad in fig leaves. But then Mira falls dangerously ill, and it all unravels.
Polly Samson’s descriptive writing can be powerful. As Julian watches Mira’s birth, ‘the crown pressed towards him like a giant eye from its socket and was born in a splatter of blood’. The newborn’s fingers ‘play an invisible harp’. She is good on atmosphere — weather, light effects, landscape — and she knows how to make quotidian details count — Julian’s mother’s oppressively delicious meals, the ‘something slippery from a tub’ that Julian ‘shovels down’ when he’s too dazed by grief to notice what he’s eating. But her plotting is confusing and tiring, with lots of flashbacks and leaps forward, and rewinding of significant moments so that they can be seen from a different point of view. And her dialogue is surprisingly lame. Mostly, the characters converse in order to reveal things that the reader needs to know, often in long scene-setting paragraphs.
The Kindness is about parent-child relationships and their absence. Samson is observant and sensitive. But she is in thrall to the beautiful, damaged people she so convincingly describes, and doesn’t seem to realise how their monstrous selfishness makes them rather tiresome company.