David Nobbs is an English writer known for comic writing, most famously “Reginald Perrin”. He is a master of dialogue and of the kind of comedy when something quite credibly goes wrong, that causes something else to go wrong and a kind of domino effect leads to utter chaos.
But I’ve always considered he had it in him to be a very good serious novelist. His brilliance with dialogue is based on a wise and extremely perceptive understanding of how people misunderstand one another and how people say one thing but mean something subtly different. His characters have ambitions and intentions which are undermined in a way which the ancient Greeks would consider characteristic of tragedy.
“It had to be you” is not a comedy. It’s a very, very good novel. I hover on the edge of calling it “great”. All Nobbs’ strengths are deployed, even the domino effect, which here is bittersweet rather than comic. The book starts with the talented middle-aged wife of a fairly successful businessman dying in a car crash. The rest of the novel takes us through the next few days in the man’s life as he struggles to cope and adjust.
Almost from the start we know that the man was having a long-term affair, but still loved his wife (in his private life but not his work avatar, he seems to be someone who is rather passive and lets things happen rather than making clear decisions). His wife died on the way to an assignation with a man in a white suit – and as Nobbs returns from time to time to this man (the only real comedy as he is pursued by the consequences of having taken off his wedding ring and left it behind in the hotel after giving a fictional name and address) I soon realised his identity was being concealed, and this being a novel and not real life, he must surely be a character we were meeting in another guise. So he was.
The main character drinks heavily, makes a remarkably good job of a very sensitive work meeting (it’s displacement activity for him) and makes arrangements for the funeral. Along the way he learns what his wife was doing and various other unexpected things about his friends, his relatives and himself, culminating in shattering (but actually not shattering, for at the end he’s still standing) revelations about why his estranged daughter cut all contact with him.
More than that I cannot say without giving away too much. It’s a highly sensitive, compassionate, observant book with a well-constructed plot and some descriptive writing that is absolutely outstanding. I strongly recommend it.