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THE ESSENCE OF THE THING Paperback – 1998


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Paperback, 1998
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Product Details

  • Paperback
  • Publisher: FOURTH ESTATE LTD (1998)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1857027078
  • ISBN-13: 978-1857027075
  • Product Dimensions: 19.2 x 12.8 x 1.6 cm
  • Shipping Weight: 259 g
  • Average Customer Review: 3.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (14 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #3,444,239 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

3.4 out of 5 stars
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Format: Paperback
Nicola left the flat briefly to buy a packet of cigarettes, but when she returns her live-in boyfriend Jonathan tells her their relationship must end. Jonathan says that he no longer wants to be with her, and it would be best if she moved out. Disbelief is Nicola’s first reaction. Then, as realization sets in and her world falls apart, she is devastated. Nicola turns to her friends, particularly Susannah, for advice. While most think that Nicola would be better off without Jonathan, she isn’t convinced.

While this novel is the story of a relationship breakup, it has some very humorous aspects. The breakup of a relationship does not just affect the couple involved, it has an impact on friends and family as well. The friends (mostly couples) and parents of Jonathan and Nicola are each ready to offer their opinions.

'Let's say he's a prat. But he's the prat I love.' She paused. 'Actually, I've never been absolutely sure what prat means, exactly.’

Much of the story unfolds via conversation, with each chapter offering a different point of view. This enables us to appreciate the differing perspectives and, importantly, to see how Nicola and Jonathan react. It may have been Jonathan’s choice to end the relationship, but it soon becomes clear that Nicola is more able than Jonathan to move on. Has Jonathan made the right decision? Does he really want Nicola to move out of his life?

‘Too bad about the marmalade. The balance between bitter and sweet was the essence of the thing.’
In this short novel, Ms St John managed to dissect a particular relationship in order to demonstrate its numerous and various components. Control may start with Jonathan, but it certainly doesn’t stay with him.
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Format: Paperback
Madeleine St. John has a great ear for dialogue, there's no doubt about it. It's a good thing, too, because "The Essence of the Thing" is carried along primarily on the strength of the characters' dialogue. The novel is a kind of case study of the break-up; when Jonathan unexpectedly ends his relationship with live-in lover Nicola, we see the devastating (and ultimately liberating) effect this has on her. Anger, grief, denial, bargaining and acceptance - yes, all these stages of loss are here, explored in great talky detail. While I can appreciate the quality of the writing - believable and natural dialogue that flows is incredibly hard to do! - the novel's heavy reliance on conversation to explore Nicola's psychological state ultimately cripples it. I was frustrated by the slow pace; I found the short chapters and frequent shifts in time choppy; lengthy conversations without immediately knowing who was speaking or when sometimes confused me; and by the middle of the book, I grew impatient with Nicola's insistence on continuing to love and moon over a man who was clearly a jerk. That said, however, there was something engrossing about the book that kept me reading until the end and I plan to check out more of this author's work.
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Format: Paperback
Madeline St John's "The Essence Of The Thing" tells the story of how Nicola copes in the aftermath of an unexpected breakup with her live-in boyfriend Jonathan. The premise of the plot is so basic in terms of human experience that anybody reading it is going to instantly relate to the personal trauma and the feeling of pain and incomprehension that take hold of Nicola and yes, even Jonathan. The novel's main strengths lie in the honesty and simplicity of St John's writing. Except for those who might dismiss it as a mildly feminist tinged "woman's book" in which the male characters are either cads or morons (not counting the gay Philip), readers might derive casual reading pleasure from this very small book about a commonplace experience of the heart. But as serious literature, it doesn't quite stack up. The insights offered by St John aren't particularly deep or enlightening. Structurally, the novel is also one-dimensional, making no attempt to raise or explore more complex issues on life and love. I am amazed that such a small novel was even considered deserving of a Booker Prize nomination. The selection committee must have seen something special in it which I didn't. Either that or 1997 was a year which spawned a poor crop.
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Format: Paperback
In contrast to an American character, who might wallow in self-pity, eat Haagen-Das and plot revenge, Nicola takes the high road when unceremoniously dumped by Jonathan, her live-in lover of five years. Deeply shocked, she maintains her love for him and her belief in herself through the process of finding out what happened, why he's asking her to leave, and accepting the outcome of that process.
Madeleine St. John uses realistic and often witty dialogue between peripheral characters to demonstrate how the break up of two people can have an effect on almost everyone they know. Although she writes with a light touch, she explores the relationship dynamics between four other couples while giving play to the fragility of any love relationship. The Essence of the Thing is a quick and entertaining read, but it could not be described as shallow by any stretch of the imagination.
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