When Beth moves to Washington, D.C. with her husband Matt to support his political aspirations, she gets quite a bit more than she bargains for. They befriend another ambitious couple Jimmy and Ashleigh, and unfortunately for Matt, Jimmy has the charisma and political It factor he lacks. Jimmy’s rise to power and Matt’s continued dissatisfaction with his life impact upon both marriages, and for Beth, who never wanted to move to Washington in the first place, she increasingly has to ask herself, is it worth it?
I had so much fun reading Jennifer Close’s The Hopefuls. I enjoy political drama (hello West Wing!) and the story begins at the cusp of Barack Obama’s successful campaign for presidency. In the midst of the social satire (an anecdote about driving a senator is really thinly veiled bragging), the hope engendered by Obama’s presidency is at the heart of Matt’s ambition. To Beth’s dismay, she can see why Matt wants to enter politics; with Obama’s administration, there is an overwhelming sense of hope, a potentially once-in-a-lifetime chance to make a difference, and no loving wife can deny her spouse that.
Yet Close also does a great job of depicting Matt’s selfishness around his ambition, his obsession with working at the White House taking precedence over everything else in his life, including his wife. While Obama’s optimism gives heart to Matt’s ambition, the heart of the story really lies in the marriage between Beth and Matt. Their story reminds me somewhat of Jim and Pam’s relationship in Season 9 of The Office. Just like we sympathized with Jim for pursuing his dream and with Pam for being left behind to raise the kids, we end up sympathizing with both Matt and Beth as well. I cried at the breakdown of Jim and Pam’s marriage in The Office (and bawled at their inevitable reconciliation, damn you Office team), and while I didn’t get quite as emotionally invested in The Hopefuls, I love how real their marriage feels. Close does a great job infusing tension and affection in the most mundane actions, and it’s almost tangible when the moments of affection begin fading away.
Unlike Jim’s new company in The Office though, Matt’s successes are few and far between, and even when he does succeed at something, his hold on it is clearly very tenuous. Beth raises a good point when she says that his friend Jimmy’s life may not be as amazing as he presents it to be, but we can hardly blame Matt for not being consoled by that, particularly in a city where ambition drives practically everything.
The other key relationship in the story is between the couples, which I honestly found disturbing, though not necessarily in a bad way. Beth seems to really like Ashleigh and Matt and Jimmy certainly get along well, but Matt’s jealousy adds a Talented Mr. Ripley / Single White Female feel to the whole affair, and I kept expecting him to suddenly lose control and come after Jimmy with a kitchen knife.
Spoiler alert: that didn’t happen. Close’s imagination is somewhat less melodramatic than mine, thank goodness. There is a betrayal though, and honestly, I wasn’t a huge fan of that twist. Where most of the novel felt fresh and real, that particular incident just felt stale and predictable. Now to be fair to Close, that may be because I’m not a big fan of that twist in general, and also to be fair, it did seem inevitable. Still, I expected more. I expected the big climax to surprise me like the novel about political machinations in Washington surprised me with its heartfelt depiction of a regular marriage. Perhaps I may have preferred Matt going all Tom Ripley after all.
Overall, the novel was a fun read about a crumbling marriage, set against the backdrop of high power politics in Washington D.C.
Thank you to Penguin Random House Canada for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.