Book Review: The Dilemma by B. A. Paris
By Janet WebbJuly 7, 2020
A few pages into The Dilemma, the relentless theme of the Perry Mason show pulsed in my brain. Something earthshattering and inexorable is about to consume Livia’s much anticipated 40th birthday party. The story is a departure for B. A. Paris, who is famous for her thrillers. The Dilemma is suspenseful and riveting, but no crimes are committed nor uncovered.
Adam and Livia fell in love when they were barely adults, planning someday to get married. The only child of distant parents, Livia remembers:
[T]he closest I got to my mother was when she bought bridal magazines, and while we looked at the dresses and cakes and flower arrangements.
But when I became pregnant, not long after my seventeenth birthday, they refused to have anything more to do with me. And the lavish wedding became a hurried fifteen-minute ceremony, with only Adam’s family and our best friends, Jess and Nelson, as guests.
Adam became a wood craftsman and Livia a stay-at-home mother, taking care of Josh, now 22, and Marnie, 19. Everyone Livia loves has been invited to her party—only Marnie can’t come because she’s living in Hong Kong. Livia is not unhappy about that because she recently learned something very troubling about her daughter’s life, a secret she keeps from Adam. Unbeknownst to Livia, Adam arranged for Marnie to be a surprise guest. Husband and wife will pay a terrible price for secrets they seem unable or unwilling to share. But enough foreshadowing.
On the cusp of her 40th birthday, Livia admits to herself, “If I’d been able to have the wedding they promised me, I wouldn’t have become obsessed with having my own special day.” Adam is not equally invested in the party but he writes to her estranged parents, pleading with them to come, saying it would mean the world to his wife.
In their early years near Bristol, patterns were established that still haunt them. Because they had no money, Livia took in laundry and built a hidden nest-egg. She thought it was a secret, but it wasn’t. Months before the birthday party Adam says that with Josh going away this summer and with Marnie in Hong Kong, money is sure to be tight.
She looked at me, and I knew that look. Guilt.
“What?” I asked.
“I’ve been saving,” she admitted. “For the party. I’ve been putting money by for years, not huge amounts, just a little each month. I’m sorry, I should have told you.”
“It’s fine,” I said, wondering if the reason she hadn’t told me was because of the time I spent her savings on a motorbike. It still makes me cringe even though it happened years ago, before Marnie was born.
Freedom was another issue. When they were newly-weds, they depended on Adam’s piece-meal income to survive but every so often he went AWOL. His friends and his employer explained to Livia that it wasn’t personal, he was letting off steam—keeping up with college friends—but she was very hurt and those wounds, although papered over, didn’t disappear. An anonymous quote sums up Livia’s feelings, “Time heals all wounds, but it doesn’t change who somebody is. Stop going back to pain.” Livia’s tendency to re-open painful memories feeds into her knee-jerk need for secrecy.
Their differing relationships with their children also marred their marriage. Adam and Josh were awkward together: their breaking point came during the construction of a Lego fort.
“Daddy, I only need help with this last bit,” he’d said for the fifth time. “I did the rest all by myself, just like you told me to.”
“It’s too old for him,” Marnie kept telling me when I ignored him. “He can’t do it.”
But Josh had persevered and instead of praising him, I lost my temper and knocked the fort over.
“Why you do that?” Marnie asked, her grammar deserting her as she looked in horror at the trashed fort.
“I—it was an accident,” I lied.
The look she gave me, of pure disgust, reminded me of the one Livia used to give me when I eventually turned up after spending days in Bristol with Nelson.
Adam feels guilty and tries desperately to mend fences but in vain: after the incident Josh will have nothing to do with his father. Years later, Adam can release some of his guilt because he arranged for Josh to get an internship in New York City with one of his wealthy clients. The family trait to be secretive and avoid examining painful truths creates a time bomb. Adam doesn’t want to be separated from his girlfriend Amy, but he dreads letting down his father. When he finally talks to his dad during Livia’s party, his father is surprisingly understanding.
“Josh,” I say, stopping him. “It’s fine. It’s not a problem. If you don’t want to go to New York, don’t go.”
He stares, relief washing over his face. “Really?”
“Yes.” I swallow painfully. “Life’s too short. Just do what makes you happy.”
He shakes his head slowly. “You wouldn’t believe how worried I’ve been about telling you.”
When a young couple encounters problems like lack of money, an unequal division of household labor, or difficulties with child-rearing, those issues seem insurmountable. Years later, when time and money ease those difficulties, is all well? Not necessarily. The Dilemma is an honest, sometimes jarring, exploration of secrets made and kept in the name of love. As Robert Frost said, “In three words I can sum up everything I’ve learned about life: it goes on.” The Dilemma explores the hard-won wisdom underlying that statement.