Surprise Me by Sophie Kinsella
As a tried and true “Shopaholic” series fan, I waited with eager anticipation for the release of Sophie Kinsella’s latest novel, Surprise Me. I recently found myself a victim of the flu, and was looking for something easy and enjoyable to digest while recouperating, and, based on previous works from the author, hoped this book would fit the bill.
The premise of the story, from the author’s website:
“So what’s Surprise Me about? Well, Dan and Sylvie are a couple who decide to try and add some surprises into their marriage, to keep things interesting. Instead, they find themselves with life-changing shocks… It’s impossible to sum up a book in a few words – but in no particular order, this one is about: marriage, love, sex, Fitbits, surprises, shocks, racy underwear, Battersea Park, parents, death, life, old friends, new friends, misunderstandings, fear and bravery. It made me laugh and then it made me cry and I hope it does the same for you. I can’t wait for you to read it! - Sophie Kinsella”
The story starts with Dan and Sylvie, a young British couple in their early ‘30’s, celebrating the 10-year anniversary of the day they met, enjoying a special lunch date, then making a visit to a doctor, a doctor whom they have never met before but was chosen for them by their insurance company for a basic health and fitness screening (insurance, you know!). The unconventional doctor brings them both into the room together, does basic tests and pronounces them both to be extremely healthy, and in a lovely marriage. He shares with them the “good news” that at the rate they’re going, with longevity in both families on their side, they are probably looking at another 68 years of marriage together!
Almost immediately, this hits both Dan and Sylvie, not as a joyous proclamation, but a “what the heck do we do with that?” kind of announcement. Although they love each other deeply, finish each others sentences, adore each other as parents to their beautiful twin daughters, they start to wonder how on earth they’re going to keep the marriage going for 68 more years. They come up with various plans to keep things fresh, and finally settle on Sylvie’s “Surprise Me” idea, an attempt to make each other happy and keep each other guessing with special outings, fun events and just basically surprises...big and small. Almost from the beginning, however, little truths about their partners are revealed and they find that they might not know each other as well as they’d thought.
If you’re not familiar with Sophie Kinsella’s writing style (which I embrace as it always provides a deep, soul-bearing understanding of her characters), from the book, here’s the prologue:
““I have this secret little vocabulary for my husband. Words I’ve invented, just to describe him. I’ve never even told him about them: they just pop into my head, now and then. Like…
Scrubcious: the adorable way he scrunches up his face when he’s confused, his eyebrows akimbo, his gaze imploring, as if to say: Explain! Dan doesn’t like to be confused. He likes everything straight. Clear. Out in the open.
Tentery: that taut, defensive way he behaves whenever the subject of my father comes up in conversation. (He thinks I don’t notice.)
Shoffed. When life has turned round and punched him in the face so hard, his breath is literally taken away for a moment.
Actually, that’s more of an all-purpose word. It can apply to anyone. It can apply to me. Right now, it does apply to me. Because guess what? I’m shoffed. My lungs have frozen. My cheeks are tingling. I feel like an actor in a daytime soap, and here’s why: 1. I’m prowling around Dan’s office, when 2. he’s out at work, oblivious to what I’m doing, and 3. I’ve opened a secret locked drawer in his desk, and 4. I can’t believe what I’ve found; what I’m holding; what I’m seeing.
My shoulders are rising and falling as I stare at it. My brain is shouting panicky messages at me, like, What? And: Does that mean…? And: Please. No. This is wrong. This has to be wrong.
And, almost worst of all: Was Tilda right, all along? Did I bring this on myself?
I can feel rising tears, mixed with rising incredulity. And rising dread. I’m not sure yet which is winning. Actually, yes I am. Incredulity is winning and it’s joining forces with anger. ‘Really?’ I feel like shouting. ‘Really, Dan?’
But I don’t. I just take some photos with my phone, because… just because. Might come in useful. Then I put it back, shut the drawer, lock it carefully, check it again (I’m slightly OCD over locked doors, turned-off washing machines, that kind of thing, I mean, not a big deal, I’m not crazy, just a bit… you know) and back away, as though from the crime scene.
I thought I knew everything about my husband and he knew everything about me. I’ve seen him cry at Up. I’ve heard him shout ‘I will vanquish you!’ in his sleep. He’s seen me wash out my knickers on holiday (because hotel laundry costs are ridiculous) and he’s even hung them up for me on the towel rail.
We’ve always been that couple. Blended. Intertwined. We read each other’s thoughts. We finished each other’s sentences. I thought we couldn’t surprise each other any more. Well, that shows how much I knew.””
So, how do I rate this book? I have to say, honestly, it was a mixed ride, though providing many more ups than downs. I love the humor, I love Kinsella’s writing style, I love how she fleshes out her character’s innermost thoughts and insecurities and I absolutely enjoy going along for the ride. The book surprised me, though, with how sad it became when the surprises did start to reveal things...it actually got pretty dark. In the past, Sophie Kinsella has shown mastery in weaving extremely touching moments and characters into her stories, alongside the humor, this book being no exception. What is different, though, is a very sad, very topical situation that, when introduced, made me feel I was reading a different author altogether. Although the situation is named, and it is key to a plotline, Kinsella spares us any and all of the details, and for this I was thankful. The ability to get right back on the rails and enjoy the ride, as the characters do, is crucial to what I, personally, was expecting from this book. Even with the little bit of lingering sadness I carried through from this brief part of the story, I’m glad I continued through to the end. Cheers to better tomorrows.
The following are reviews from others much more qualified than I am, and all of them stick to the fun aspect of the book, which I want to assure you is definitely there. I guess in the end I just want to give readers full disclosure before they embark, as I did, on what they expected to be a completely joyous, fluffy, marshmallow-world romp.
“A delightful take on the mixed blessings of marital longevity.”—People
“Genuinely funny.”—The New York Times Book Review
“Unexpected and wholly satisfying.”—USA Today
“In her signature fashion, Sophie Kinsella brings a cast of quirky, funny characters to this new work. [She] keeps the laughs coming. . . . Readers will follow the story with bated breath as the couple struggle to make their marriage right after everything they thought they knew about each other proves wrong.”—Library Journal
“Heartfelt . . . What at first seems like a light novel about familiar woes turns into a deeper story about trust, family, and perception.”—Publishers Weekly
“Winsome and zesty, Kinsella’s latest delivers all the hallmarks her many fans have come to expect.”—Booklist
“Pure fun . . . a hilariously moving look at marriage and the power of mixing things up.”—Kirkus Reviews