The title of A.D. Miller’s follow-up to his Man Booker shortlisted debut Snowdrops refers not to lovers but to two British men who befriend each other in their early twenties in 1993 when in the US. Among the sights they see on a tour of Yosemite is a pair of old trees with a conjoined trunk known as ‘The Faithful Couple’.
Neil lost his mother as a child, and his father owns and runs a stationery store. He is the only one in his family to have been to university. Adam comes from a more entitled background and is full of confidence. When he speaks of his career ambitions in TV it is with certainty, not hope.
Despite their differences, the two strike up a friendship. Neither is particularly likeable at the start: they do a runner from a bar, and delight in lying about themselves to strangers. Their friendship might not have lasted beyond their return to the UK were they not by then linked by a private matter that took place in Yosemite. Although they resolve to forget the incident, it casts a shadow over their friendship; a festering wound of guilt and resentment at which they pick repeatedly.
The novel follows both men, revisiting them at intervals over the next 18 years as their careers and lives develop, often in unexpected ways. The third-person narration starts from Neil’s point of view, and then follows each man in turn, inhabiting their minds and lives, though there are lapses. It is a little jarring when the narrator occasionally shows himself to be omniscient, knowing what is in both men’s minds simultaneously, or relating details in advance of when the characters would know them.
This does, however, allow for fore-shadowing to build tension. We are told, early on, that
for all the blame they were to apportion, all the secrecy and forgiveness and revenge, they didn’t feel so very much at the time... remorse can sometimes accumulate... events can take on a different complexion or valency the further they recede.
Two things make Miller’s writing dazzle. One is his glorious perspicacity about people and relationships of all sorts: friendships stained with betrayal and competitiveness, work acquaintanceships and love relationships alike. He’s witty as well as insightful. The routine exchange of complaints between Adam and his wife at the end of each day is ‘a reciprocal compassion, like oral sex but more frequent’.
Miller’s other great strength is the aptness and originality of his metaphors and similes. Neil’s lonely father’s naps are ‘miniature, reversible suicides’. Adam carries a scalding cup of high-street coffee to work ‘as if it were a votive offering’. Mordant humour laces many descriptions: ‘a freakish Blairish sort of grin’; ‘a large mole... covered and advertised by a smudge of orange face powder’.
It was a challenge for Miller to impress as much with his second novel as he did with his first, but it is one to which he has risen with assurance.