Sign of the Times by Susan Buchanan – twelve characters live parallel lives in an ambitious novel of twenty first century life.

Sign of the Times by Susan Buchanan

This is an ambitious book of contemporary life which shows a talented author carefully using the stories of twelve people to construct a novel with a genuinely interesting plot. Twelve star signs are reflected in these twelve people with their often complicated lives, as Buchanan gives them their own identities and ambitions, cares and issues. Ranging from a successful author of travel books seeking to immerse herself in Italian life through her sister on a conference which includes extra -curricular activities, through a Polish immigrant who wants to forge a new life for herself and her family, to a carer who needs to discover life outside limits, these people all have their own agendas, families, friends, as well as contributing to parallel stories. They are all linked back to one character, and have an impact on her life to varying degrees, as well as their own narrative arc. Each character’s story arrives at something of a turning point or crisis, often linked to another person like a partner or good friend. This is the book’s great achievement, to hold all the characters’ stories in tension while time passes and another character is introduced. It is an audacious plan, allowing for all sorts of details of lives to be explored, without it being a series of unrelated short stories. 

There is a lot of skilled writing here, with well thought out narratives for each person which amount to vivid stories. Some of the characters need a new direction in their lives, or at least have problems with the lives they are leading. This book is obviously the product of much thought and balanced construction, and I was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review it. 

Holly is the first character to be introduced, as she flies to Italy in order to continue her successful series of books on the authentic nature of life in the country. An unexpected meeting casts some doubts on her feelings for Tom, who is struggling with his business at home. Meanwhile Maggie, an eternal student, has had a difficult past, while her friend Jennifer has a tough life caring for her mother. Ben is a mountain resume volunteer, but has his own domestic difficulties. Oscar is a thoughtful estate agent who works hard, but frequently misses his wife Gaby who seems completely driven by her career. Lucy is a successful doctor and medical lecturer, but the excitement of the ski slopes is enhanced by an encounter with a man who knows nothing of her relationship with Carl back in Scotland. Carl comes from a huge family who really care for each other, but which Lucy has problems with in many ways. Meanwhile Maria has had a tragic loss which has left her to cope with two young children and find much of her daily purpose in her events business. Stumbling over a young Polish woman, she shows her generous and protective side as she encourages Czeslawa to improve her English and gives her challenging work. Czeslawa and her small family are so pleased to move into a lovely friendly community, and soon prove their worth as neighbours and friends despite the difficulties they have faced. Antonia has an important job which she takes very seriously, aware of those who she works with and the impending changes which they all face. Her husband Jack is an able lawyer who feels strongly about his cases. They are both concerned about their son Felix, who seems to be struggling with being a seventeen year old. 

Any reader will find more interest and perhaps sympathy for some characters more than others, and Buchanan holds nothing back in detailing the nature of their lives. This book is an audacious juggling act, holding twelve characters and those nearest to them in some sort of balance, while pushing each of their often parallel stories along. It is a big book in its way, and one I firmly recommend as an involving read written with a lot of insight into twenty first century life.