The essence of the thing

That was Nicola’s marmalade, and they were not now in a shared-marmalade situation. He knew he’d been right in principle, in essence: it was just the mundane details which took a bit of getting used to. Too bad about the marmalade. The balance between bitter and sweet was the essence of the thing.

It’s a typical day. Nicola pops out of her Notting Hill flat for some cigarettes and returns to a stranger. Her boyfriend Jonathan is telling her something she can’t understand, saying that he has made a decision. He has come to a conclusion: they have to part. He doesn’t want to talk about it, about why, and wants Nicola to move out unless she wants to buy him out of their co-owned flat. He’s a lawyer, she’s, well, not. So she has no choice.

Having been cast out by him, she now found – as she had found before – that she was capable only of speaking and acting, even to a degree apparently of feeling, like a stranger. But struggling, terrified and helpless, a loving and trusting Nicola shrieked in anguish from the depths of this stunned and frozen stranger.

But Nicola still isn’t over her shock. She wants an explanation. Of course, who wouldn’t? But most of all she wants things to go back to the way they used to.

She had thought her tears were all shed. She had assured herself that once the ironing was done, and the evening had fallen, and Jonathan had returned, and she and he had talked, properly talked, to each other, everything would be normal again. Normal and nice. They would be a normal, nice couple again, and could make amicable arrangements again, and accept amicable invitations, as normal…

Madeleine St John tells Nicola and Jonathan’s story in punchy chapters, making this a quick read. And while the main storyline is a heartbreak, the support Nicola receives from her good friend Susannah (and her accommodating husband Geoffrey and precocious son Guy) is so full of warmth and, at times, humour. This was, for me, a great read filled with great writing and observations about relationships. However, while I quite liked Nicola and her friends, Jonathan just seemed so cold, so heartless, so the type of guy who would give a dead fish handshake. There wasn’t much – if at all – to like about him, he seemed to be written quite one-sidedly that the reader has no choice but to not like him. Well at least that’s what it was like for me.

The Essence of the Thing, is probably her masterwork: “a further chapter”, as one of the characters remarks, “in the gruesome, yet frequently hilarious saga of the island people who had given the planet its common language and virtually all its games”.”

Madeleine St John’s obituary in The Independent

Madeleine St John’s bibliography
The Women in Black (1993)
A Pure Clear Light (1996)
The Essence of the Thing (1997)
A Stairway to Paradise (1999)


  1. How terrible, to return home to someone who has suddenly stopped loving you and forcing her to move out asap. Wow. Do you ever get to find out why Jonathan changed in such a short timeframe? Or did Nicola just miss the signs leading up to the moment?


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