“Friendship is far more tragic than love,” Oscar Wilde believed. “It lasts longer.” British writer Jonathan Coe seems to agree with this proposition, and his new novel, The Rain Before It Falls, offers a portrait of a 30-year female friendship—packed with all the affection, treachery, torment, and intensity that such a liaison can breed. Following the death of her Aunt Rosamond, niece Gill is named executrix of her estate and inherits a series of cassettes that Rosamond recorded on the eve of her demise. The cassettes detail Rosamond’s tumultuous connection with her cousin Beatrix, as well as Beatrix’s daughter Thea and granddaughter Imogen. Rosamond intended the tapes for Imogen, but Gill can’t locate her. Gradually, the tapes reveal the unhappiness of these relationships and the tragedies of these women’s lives.
In the recordings, Rosamond often displays an irritating passivity, while the manipulative, volatile Beatrix is revealed as a bitch—not that this genteel novel makes use of such a term. Rain is a sweet book, sometimes verging on the saccharine, and it seems strange that a man who could author a novel as wonderfully and comically heartless as The Winshaw Legacy (a mashup of Thatcherite politics, family drama, and slasher film) could also write this one. But Coe is first and foremost a writer of characters, and he lets those characters—here, narrator Rosamond—determine the tone of his novels. (This perhaps explains why Coe’s The Rotters’ Club, a story of lively Birmingham adolescents, knocked readers’ socks off—and why its follow-up, The Closed Circle, which aged the characters into dreary adults, left those socks unmolested.)
If Rosamond’s temperament makes for a somewhat mannered novel, it’s nevertheless an absorbing one. Coe structures her recordings as a series of photographs that she describes in scrupulous detail, each picture revealing a little more of her history. Coe is a sufficiently artful plotter that the reader may well come to believe, as Rosamond herself insists, that “There is a reason for everything. . . . In fact, the story I am trying to tell you will demonstrate as much—if I tell it properly.” Rosamond, and Coe, tell it very properly indeed.