It was with sheer pleasure that I delved into Sleeping Arrangements, by Madeleine Wickham, some weeks ago. The nice thing about reading familiar authors is that you always know what you're getting. True to form, Wickham delivered the beyond skin deep chick lit for which she is known, eschewing the cliched and predictable characters that often populate such fiction in favor of those that are multi-dimensional and sympathetic.
The premise of Sleeping Arrangements is that two families are invited to vacation at a mutual friend's villa at the same time without knowing it - and without knowing that some of them know each other. Chloe and Philip are unmarried and have two boys. Chloe's an artist-slash-dressmaker, and Philip is a banker in danger of losing his job. Hugh and Amanda are married with two girls. Hugh is a wealthy businessman, and Amanda is a stay-at-home mom. The story is set in exotic Spain, the ideal backdrop for the undoing of a group of straitlaced Brits. As one might predict, Hugh and Chloe have a romantic past, and despite their old hurts and hatreds, they end up in bed again. For added drama, Hugh turns out to be the head of the company that's responsible for Philip's imminent layoff.
A stock storyline would have Philip and Amanda cast as horrible people, making it all too easy for Hugh and Chloe to break ties with their current lives and pick up where they left off. Not so here. Wickham reveals the good and bad in each character, rendering each as realistic and worthy of the reader's concern. For example, Amanda is prickly and uptight, but she is also wholeheartedly devoted to her children. Philip is moody and distant due to his job situation but is a kind partner and involved father. Chloe is introduced as sweet and down-to-earth but is shown to be selfish and disloyal when she reunites with Hugh. Hugh is the classic workaholic, too wrapped up in his career to make time for his family. Of all the characters, he's the least complicated. But his affair with Chloe serves to change him as well, giving him a glimpse of what his life would be like without his wife and daughters.
A series of events reveals that the families' mutual friend, Gerard, double-booked the families on purpose. He was aware of the connection between Hugh and Philip and was amused by the idea of them vacationing together. But he did not know about Hugh and Chloe, a fact that is revealed only after they get together. The knowledge shames them, preventing them from blaming Gerard and forcing them to take responsibility for their own actions. They end up returning to their respective partners, ultimately realizing that they are just as different from each other as they were fifteen years ago, and therefore, incompatible.
Sleeping Arrangements presents a tale of order that deteriorates into chaos, facilitated by the marionette strings of a practical joker, only to have order restored at the end. It's a quick yet engaging read, and fans of chick lit (oh, how it pains me to use that descriptor) will enjoy it. I myself will most likely be moving on to The Gatecrasher, another Wickham yarn.