The unwanted declaration of love. The friend who decides to honestly reveal what they always thought of your baby’s nose. Sometimes it only takes one line to kill a relationship. For some reason, the publisher of Private Citizens invites us on the flyleaf to “Call it … Middlemarch for millennials”. And what could have been a pleasant encounter between reader and slab of near-contemporary realism is suddenly dead, murdered by incompatible expectations. Every page of this debut is haunted by the unflattering question: “Is this what a Middlemarch for millennials would do?”
In the pro column: it’s on the long side, with liberal use of free indirect discourse, some philosophical digressions, and erudite quotes to head up each chapter (one of which is taken from Middlemarch, suggesting that the comparison has not been imposed unbidden). It’s also set around a critical moment in technology from recent history, with the burgeoning internet of 2007-8 in place of the railways bearing down on Middlemarch. In the con column: this is not a study of life in a provincial town, because it’s set in San Francisco; and it doesn’t have the roaming, rangy sympathies of Eliot. Where Middlemarch achieved understanding for even its most flawed characters, no one in Private Citizens rises above the level of detestable.