On Christmas Day I was handed a book-shaped bundle of wrapping paper by my mother, along with the comment “I thought of you every time I saw this in Waterstones. I simply had to buy it!”. Charming, I thought, as flimsy peels of wrapping paper fell away to reveal the strapline: ‘What happened to the women we were supposed to become?’. So, with me specifically in mind, my mother had purchased a book about failure, loss, and missed opportunities. Merry bloody Christmas.
However, having subsequently devoured Expectation by Anna Hope in a matter of hours, I can conclude entirely unoriginally that one should never judge a book by its cover, its title, or indeed its strapline. Far from peddling the pervasive, exhausting, and to my mind toxic ‘how to become the best version of yourself’ narrative, this tale sets glimmering moments of time in a sea of change and flux.
In following the interlocking journeys of three women over several decades, Hope’s contemporary fiction debut serves as a potent reminder of the existentialist notion that we are always in the process of becoming. Searching for respite from the bombardment of new year things-would-be-better-if goal setting? Look no further than Hope’s Expectation.
In the opening chapter, Hope plants us into the romantically dishevelled east London flat of Hannah, Cate and Lissa in 2004. It’s an early Saturday summer morning, light streams through the windows illuminating just the right amount of homely and comforting chaos. There’s toast and tea. There’s cotton-bag-laden market trips producing fresh croissants, newspapers and strong cheese. There’s cheap red wine. It’s almost sickeningly Richard Curtis. Queue shabby male lead in an unbuttoned shirt and odd socks. But, gloriously, he never arrives.
This initial and enticing passage contains only the gallivanting escapades of three women immersing themselves in a London summer of bike rides, art galleries and drunken park picnics. Certainly, it’s glamorised. But even here, Hope toes the line of idyllic without ever fully crossing it. Fears of gentrification, climate change and knife crime cloud the fringes of their consciousness. We are reminded, even here, that this place so often depicted as a happy ending, a destination, ‘the dream’, is only ever a fragment in time. A sliver in the inevitably more convoluted, complicated thing that is life.
Cut forward six years and such complications are rife. Hannah, while materially successful, feels desperately impoverished by her lack of a baby, consumed by endless cycles of IVF and an increasingly strained marriage. Cate sits on a park bench, staring blankly through a thick fog of postpartum depression. Lissa is wrapped in a revolving door of auditions, of missed opportunities, each of which chips away a little more at her remaining kernel of self-esteem. Yet Hope depicts none of these subjectivities as straightforwardly bleak or tragic.
While the adversity faced by each is done justice, Hope shows how each is made infinitely more challenging by a misapprehension of the others’ lot. At times, all these women want what another has got. Hannah yearns for Cate’s organic existence in a bubble of yummy mummy suburban bliss. Cate envies Hannah’s seemingly secure and deeply passionate relationship. Both look in lustful awe at Lissa’s glamorous independence and charismatic beauty. Lissa resents Hannah’s financial security.
At times the misapprehension of all three erodes their sensitivity, rendering them unable to empathise with or support the other. In this way, Hope returns repeatedly to a greater evil at play – loneliness. At one point this message is made almost crudely explicit with the claim that Cate “does not need anti-depressants, just better friends”. But behind this metaphor, I think the sentiment is sound: suffering is inevitable, relationships make it bearable.
These core themes of friendship, loneliness, envy, compassion and vulnerability are raised by Hope in a way that skilfully manages to remind us of our common humanity without lecture or damning cliché. One central and striking way in which this is achieved is through Hope’s stark descriptions of highly morally charged topics in an entirely a-judgemental way.
I avoid the term non-judgemental because there is no self-conscious skirting around the thorniness of the topics of infidelity, abortion, grief and depression. There is no higher-than-thou, forgive and forget, infinite and alien selflessness to see. Instead, what comes across is the thickness of human emotion and the finite position from which each of us sees the world. This nuance does justice to the complexity of human affairs and, rather than directing you homogeneously to a conclusion, invites you to just be with the situation at hand.
The book ends back at the park, a summer’s day in 2018, a picnic. But, while there is something comfortingly ritualistic and cyclical here, again this is not straightforward. There is no restoration of all that was once good. There is no resolutely happy ending. Life carries on and, though there are some triumphs, you also get the sense of some opportunities missed, some paths not taken, some loss.
It is cuttingly real. And that is why I love it. The new year is full of expectation, anticipation, and yearning. There is an insatiable and sickening hunger for self-improvement. But as always, what we are most desperately in need of is a moment of stillness, reflection, and a bloody large injection of gratitude. And, in this capacity, Hope’s novel will exceed your expectations.
Image: Evangelina Silina via Unsplash