London - There isn’t a whip or a pair of handcuffs in sight, and the only shades of grey to be seen are on the heads of the two romantic leads. Yet the latest publishing sensation owes its success to the kind of word-of-mouth praise which sent the Fifty trilogy into the bestseller stratosphere.
Published modestly last year and selling only 1 000 copies in paperback, Thursdays in the Park, by 62-year-old Hilary Boyd, is now at the top of the e-book chart, outselling thriller writers Ken Follett and EL James.
After becoming a phenomenon, translation rights have been sold in four countries and the film rights snapped up. Charles Dance – sex symbol for many a woman of a certain age – will star.
And what’s causing such a flurry of excitement among female readers? The question of love in later life and what form it should take.
You’d think in these sex-obsessed days, no stone has been left unturned when it comes to human relationships. But if my weekly postbag is anything to go by, this is one trend that men and women find hard to discuss.
As an experienced advice columnist, I’ve lost count of the letters I’ve received from middle-aged women desperate for affection and real passion in their lives.
The cover line on Hilary Boyd’s novel asks the quietly provocative question: “Does love have a sell-by date?” The answer is obviously: “No.”
But it’s striking a chord with thousands of female readers because it expresses their most private fantasy – one to which the story of Christian Grey and his whips and chains is irrelevant.
Two 60-year-old grandparents, one married, one single, meet in the park while their respective grandchildren are playing on the swings – and fall in love.
The heroine, Jeanie, meets handsome, athletic widower Ray, by the children’s playground, then finds herself struggling with the problem of having a difficult husband who withdrew from their marital bed years ago and is uncommunicative , and Jeanie grieves “that her sexuality seemed to have vanished”.
But when the chemistry first begins to work between her and Ray, it’s a very different story: “Her body seemed to have come alive, as if every cell had suddenly been sparked out of a long torpor.”
I don’t know many middle-aged women who wouldn’t read that and feel wistful. Perhaps they’re perfectly happy in a companionable marriage, perhaps not – but that’s not the point.
Even a happily married woman likes the idea of being fancied by a handsome stranger – especially when her 60th birthday is looming.
Author Hilary Boyd has cleverly tapped into that secret dream of a second crack at romance, and into the wistfulness which lies behind many letters to my advice column.
Of course men share that wistfulness, but they find it easier to start new relationships – often with younger women.
In fact, at one point in Thursdays in the Park, Jeanie, who stops meeting Ray after pressure from her daughter, believes he’s in love with a very much younger woman. She’s in agony. I’m not going to give any more away, but I will tell you that Boyd also gives us what we most want – a happy ending all round.
Although Jeanie is falling in love with Ray, she is very much aware that her duty lies with her husband of 32 years. George is pretty boring. But, worse, he is also domineering and insists they must sell their London house and move to the country, even though Jeanie doesn’t want to.
Fiction mirrors real life; this was the subject matter of a letter I receiced in September. “Mary” wrote to me as follows: “My husband has dismissed my misgivings and is determined. We’ve had umpteen rows... Now our home is being sold and I’m panicking as I know I’ll be bullied into a move I don’t want.’
“Mary” was shackled (or so it seemed) to a man who had no regard for her wants or feelings. From my perspective, there’s no shortage of assertive, selfish men, nor of women, who dream of escape or rescue. Another cry from the heart is all too common: “He just doesn’t talk to me any more.”
When Jeanie tells George that she’s met somebody else (and at this point no sex has taken place) he refuses to talk about the issue, and walks away saying: “There’s nothing to say.”
At this point, Hilary Boyd describes Jeanie’s feelings in a brilliant phrase, “leaving her in the limbo of the unheard”.
I know for a fact that many women exist within that limbo — because they write and tell me. It’s not that they want to be unfaithful, they just long for attention from the man they married.
When asked, I often give a generalisation arising from the marriage problems in my postbag — that men want sex while women want love.
For example, there’s a letter on my desk right now, from a woman of 57, writing about a family issue involving problems between her adult son and her second husband. Her obvious loneliness is almost an aside: “I only see my husband in the evenings as he works long hours and plays golf all weekend. I have never tried to stop the golf obsession, unlike most of his golf mates’ wives, but if he ever has to spend a day with me (eg if the course is closed) he seems bored witless.”
That’s truly heartbreaking. And what about the wives of those “golf mates”? What do they want? Conversation, companionship, cuddles, compliments? Of course. Forget Viagra – the Four C’s are my recipe for middle-aged (and older) men to take to heart, to improve their marriages and start afresh.
But in the absence of the mutual attention and affection which are essential to a good marriage, I reckon any one of those golf widows would be ripe for a romance with an attractive, attentive, available stranger met in the park. Do I hear a quiet chorus of “I should be so lucky” from older women readers?
Let us not minimise the pain involved in ending a marriage. In the novel, Jeanie tries to stay, but realises she is clinging to George out of affection, pity and duty as well as the need for security.
Boyd paints the alternative very rosily: “The thought [of leaving] no longer spelt loss, but rather opened the door to freedom, such a scent of life, like breathing the fresh, early morning air from an open window.”
In my experience, real life is messier and involves far more pain. Earlier this year a report revealed that the divorce rate is increasing among over-60s. The figures revealed that more than 11 500 people over 60 were granted a divorce in 2009 – a rise of four percent in two years.
Nowadays, when people can postpone the ageing process, they’re tending to regard turning 60 as the start of the next phase of their lives, not the end. We can’t dismiss this social revolution. The older generation – my own – is no longer behaving in the traditional manner.
No wonder Thursdays In The Park is becoming such a must-read, even if it merely feeds harmless dreams. After all, when Jeanie tells Ray: “I suppose that a part of me feels there is something indecent at my age, about being in love,” most of us will join with her lover in denying that negation of the life-force which has nothing to do with age. Why on earth shouldn’t you fall in love at 60, 70 or 80?
But since there is no sell-by date on love, there’s no reason not to try to rekindle it within your marriage. Men could start by inviting their wives to go for a romantic walk in the park, every Thursday. – Daily Mail