The Faithful CoupleThe Faithful Couple by A.D. Miller

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

If you’ve read Snowdrops, then you already know A.D. Miller writes beautifully, and The Faithful Couple very much shines in this realm. However, while dazzling prose of this order is normally sufficient to please in itself, here it is the least interesting part of the book. Yes, it’s beautifully written, but what’s far more enjoyable it how exquisitely the whole thing has been thought out. Every page shows traces of big thinking, verbal fingerprints as it were, evidence of a genuine fascination with the questions being tackled which, in turn, makes for compelling reading.


I am always sucker for when the mechanics of the text play into the core themes, and so I particularly loved the opening segment where we are alternating seamlessly between Adam and Neil’s POVs. This alone tells us everything we need to know about the assumptions we are meant to be making about their friendship. Within a very short period, they have become intertwined into one, (closer than Neil and Jess will later manage in more than a decade).

For the first half of the novel, we are faced with an uncomfortable moral dilemma, very much from our times, when a precocious girl who is under the age of consent ends up alone in a tent with a fledgling adult who really ought to have known better. It makes for very uncomfortable reading, but at least it is over very quickly, and as is explicitly mentioned, these days who doesn’t have some sort of regrettable liaison somewhere at the back of the closet of their mind? Something one would prefer to never think about, or worse have anyone else ever thinking about. But in Adam’s case, he is not equipped with the sort of mental filing system that lets others cringe for a few days and then somehow move on.

So the engine driving this story is that Adam is racked with guilt for an act committed by Neil. Why? Because he knows if anyone is guilty here, it is him, as he could have saved Neil from himself, but instead chose to egg him on out of sheer idiotic rivalry. For years, although they never actually discuss it, Adam assumes Neil must also be tortured by these events, and so, in Adam’s mind, his guilt-by-omission has grown to include multiple victims: the girl on the receiving end of the untoward act, her (possible, and yet unconfirmed/imaginary child), and Neil and his (possible, and yet well hidden) tortured soul.

Following this catalyst event in 1993, we follow the protagonists through early adulthood and almost until the present. In other words, against the backdrop of the Blair years, the dotcom bubble, and as events progress, across the no-going-back threshold in time when we all became just a wee bit too Googleable for our own good. So while once you could accidentally have it off with a minor in a tent up the side of some mountain you were never going to scale again and be done with it, these days life is more complicated than that. Assuming, of course, one is, like Adam, of a mind to make it so.

As we are repeatedly told, only a friend can betray you, and there is no betrayal quite like discovering that the other pillar holding ‘us’ up is no longer where you left it. For as Miller’s characters demonstrate in various ways, even if these amorphous entities we think of as ‘us’ aren’t always greater than the sum of their parts, they are at least quite different to them. But, in narrative terms, what is more interesting is that they also all come with rules and valencies that only those on the inside can ever fully understand. To Adam and Neil it would make perfect sense that their first calls on 7/7 didn’t go to their respective spouses, while to Claire and Jess this would surely have been nothing short of betrayal. But even more astute is that when ‘nothing happens’ between Neil and Claire, Adam is quickly prepared to believe and forgive Claire, but not Neil. Why? Because marital fidelity is not nearly as important to him as his all-consuming need to know that Neil would never cheat on him.

This dovetails with another of the novel’s underlying themes – the trivial secrets we all keep, the inconsequential furniture of our minds that no one ever gets to see – and possibly wouldn’t actually care about even if they did. In Adam’s case, these secrets amount to the fact that there is just far too much going on beneath the surface for his own good, while for all that he is outwardly the far more successful of the two, Neil has a surprisingly shallow inner life. A case then, of opposites attracting?

Miller is also very good on the role of recurring jokes, and one-liners in friendship, and more particularly, male friendships (what is it about Prog bands?). Much of the air time between Adam and Neil which seems taken up in the comfort to be had in knowing without a doubt that your friend will be your straight man on cue. On the one hand, the tall tales the pair weave from inside their ‘us’ bubble are a bit of harmless fun. On the other, they are also a means of continually re-building the walls around their ‘us’.  Sometimes this doesn’t matter, as Claire shows us through her indulgent, outsiders ‘you boys’. A recurring line which Miller reprises to powerful effect when Jess suddenly realises not so much the scale of the secret Neil has been keeping, but rather its effect (i.e. ensuring that Adam and Neil are closer to each other than either can ever hope to be with anyone else), and ‘you boys’ then becomes ‘you fucking boys’.

In some ways, The Faithful Couple feels like emotional dialetics. An exploration of the values ‘don’t sweat it’ and ‘angst is good’. The evidence does rather point to one side noticeably stockpiling more money and uncomplicated, (and varied) sex than the other. Moreover, once the more tortured Adam finally manages to let go of the fact that there are three people in this marriage, the losses on his side are soon mitigated.

The lesson, if such a sombre word can be applied here, seems to lie in the advice Adam received from his errant father, Jeremy. First, get yourself off. Then, with a bit of luck you’ll figure out a way to forgive yourself, and anyone else who matters, and – by implication – do better next time, my son.

Although, I could have happily kept reading more and more about Adam and Neil, and I have found my thoughts repeatedly turning to them since finishing The Faithful Couple, I felt it ended at precisely the right moment. A few seconds less and I’d have felt cheated, a few seconds more and I’d have wanted chapter and verse on 2015.

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