Talking Love and Longing with Marian Keyes

Marian Keyes’s “The Break”. Image sourced from Marian Keyes’s page. 

Marian Keyes is a bestselling Irish novelist — the prolific author of sixteen books of fiction, well regarded for titles like Getting Married, Rachel’s Holiday, and Last Chance Saloon. In her latest novel, The Break, Keyes continues to build on past themes, exploring relationships from female perspectives, and tackling difficult topics with a characteristic sense of humour and wit.

Amy’s husband Hugh has decided he needs some time off from their marriage — no, it’s not a divorce, but a break. Hugh will travel Southeast Asia while Amy remains at home with the kids, working her PR job and sorting through understandably muddled emotions. Amy has her own desires, feelings that tempt her to stray from her commitment to Hugh. Keyes works through a series of questions. Is Hugh a bad guy? Is Amy guilty of emotional unfaithfulness? Is their relationship built to last? She’s not quick to jump to conclusions. Instead her characters learn to accept messiness and to simply find comfort in companionship.

“I used to think the line dividing sane people from insane people was entirely black or white – sane or insane – with no grey area.,” thinks Amy, “but suddenly I see now that the grey area is enormous. It spreads far and wide and into every part of life.”

Last month, I had the opportunity to ask Marian some questions about the book. Take a look at our conversation for insights into characters and thoughts on what makes or breaks a satisfying relationship.

Rachel Gerry: Your style of writing is truly funny; Amy is full of one-liners and witty observations. What is the value of presenting serious content in a lighthearted manner?

Marian Keyes: Hello and thank you! I always write about issues that impact the lives of women and they’re often serious things. Using humour is a trick to keep the reader reading despite the subject matter being uncomfortable or challenging. I think it’s probably a way to also keep me writing. However, I’m very careful to never use humour to undermine a serious subject.

R: Social media plays a significant role in this novel. Facebook helps Amy to keep an eye on Hugh when he is away and to monitor peoples’ reactions when he returns. Do you believe that platforms like Facebook have a negative impact on modern day relationships?

MK: I’m not really on Facebook for the very reason that I find it unsettling and sometimes actually upsetting. Seeing other people out ‘Living their best life’ and being on amazing holidays etc. makes me feel like my own existence is pretty pathetic. I guess I see how good it can be in staying in touch with loved ones who live far away but by presenting an idealized picture of other lives, Facebook can erode the value we put on our own less-than-perfect relationships.

R: Amy’s affair with journalist, Josh Rowan, is strictly emotional before it becomes physical. Is there an important difference between these forms of infidelity?

MK: I don’t think I’d be too happy if my husband was emotionally infatuated with another women. But I think I’d be far more distraught if it was physical. Up to a point I think flirtations are okay, I mean we’re all human. But in Amy’s case, it was a bit more than that, long before it got physical.

R: At times, the children seem to have it more together than the parents. “We’ve been chill about this,” reminds Amy’s daughter, Kiara. Where do they derive their strength and maturity?

MK: Kiara was very much inspired by my beloved niece Ema, who is amazing. She’s an old soul even though she’s only 17. Also, I think modern kids have been given an education in emotional intelligence that I never got. They have the language to express how they feel, they have labels to hang their emotions on. Schools are so pro-active in trying to prevent mental health issues that it’s made a difference to how teens view the world. As a caveat though, I should stress that while they can be wise about other people, they still find their own feelings confusing and sometimes overwhelming.

R: Many chapters begin with the announcement of the weekday, often a Monday. What does this say about Amy’s routine? Her feelings towards it?

MK: It’s predictable, it’s tough and there aren’t that many opportunities for fun. Like, so many people, poor Amy has a lot on her plate.

R: “I feel like I need to hurt you,” says Amy when Hugh returns. Is it important to feel even in a relationship?

MK: I’m sorry I’m not sure I understand the question. But I totally understand Amy wanting to hurt Hugh because he’s hurt her so much. I think it’s a natural response.

R: Amy realizes that no relationship is black and white. “Life is all about the grey”. When you began to write this book, were you aware of its ending? Or were you unsure of how to navigate through “the grey”?

MK: I had NO idea how it was going to end. It was only through the writing of this novel that I realised just how much of life is ‘grey’. Every relationship is nuanced and now I feel that no-one has any right to comment on another person’s relationship: the people who are living it are the only ones who truly understand its unique complexity. So yes, I was very uncertain about navigating the nuances. All I knew was that there were no goodies and no baddies, just flawed humans trying to do their best.

R: What do you believe is most important quality in a long-term relationship?

MK: Tricky one. I was going to say Kindness because it’s what I look for in everyone. But I guess for a longterm relationship to survive, it means the 2 people have to learn to forgive each other for their fallibility. Holding each other to impossibly high standards is going to fail. From time to time, even when we love someone, we’re all going to make mistakes, get things wrong, be thoughtless, selfish, foolish. To recognise that your partner is just a flawed human being, just like you, instead of a perfect saviour, can be disappointing but it also provides a realistic view of things from which to work.

R: (With reference to the above.) Do you think that your characters ever find it?

MK: Absolutely!

Thank you very much, these were great questions

Marian Keyes’s “The Break” was published earlier this year by Penguin and is now available online and in store. Find out more about the author here.