Friday, 11 April 2014
The Lemon Grove by Helen Walsh
Published by: Random House Canada
Taking place over the course of one week, The Lemon Grove lands in the heat of Deia, a village on an island off the southeast coast of Spain. Jenn and Greg are on their annual holiday to enjoy languorous, close afternoons by the pool, and relaxed dinners overlooking the rocks. But the equilibrium is upset by the arrival of their teenage daughter, Emma, and her boyfriend, Nathan. Jenn, in her early forties, loves her (older) husband and her (step)daughter and is content with her life, she thinks. But when this beautiful, reckless young man comes into her world, she is caught by a sexual compulsion that she's seldom felt before. As the lines hotly blur between attraction, desire and obsession, Jenn’s world is thrown into tumult--by Nathan's side, she could be young and carefree once again, and at this stage in her life, the promise of youth is every bit as seductive as the promise of passion. Jenn struggles between the conflicting pulls of resistance and release, and the events of the next few days have the potential to put lives in jeopardy as the players carry out their roles in this unstoppably sexy and unputdownable novel from a brilliant observer of the human condition.
Jen has enjoyed the first week of her holiday alone with husband Greg but is dreading the arrival of her stepdaughter Emma, which is how the book opens.
Emma has persuaded her parents to let her bring her boyfriend, Nathan on the holiday with her. It is clear to Jenn that Nathan is Emma's first love; she is completely besotted with him. Observing them, her perception is that this relationship will most likely unravel and fall apart and that Emma will suffer when that happens. She went through it herself as a teenager so she knows - and she is powerless to do anything about it. You get the sense that all is not right with Jenn and 15 year old Emma. It would seem that tension and resentment has been building on both sides for some time. An unfortunate incident causes a confrontation between the women the moment Emma and Nathan arrive and Emma continues to be nasty to Jenn thereafter.
Jenn only met Nathan briefly in the UK and she did not get a proper look at him. Now she has had a chance to meet him properly she can't help but notice how attractive he is. Unlike Emma, Nathan is polite and friendly towards her. She is surprised, although pleased, that he is a working class boy from the north.
Walsh writes about the GB class divide as well as the North-South divide. Jenn is a northerner who was raised in a working class family. Greg is middle class and a southerner. Jenn is not happy that Greg had insisted that Emma attend a private school and she resents having to pay for it. Emma, as a consequence moves in circles of the affluent. She uses her social status to snipe at Jen; she comments on how 'common' she looks, mocks her accent and implies that she is poorly educated. However, she does this not because she believes it, but because she knows how much it hurts Jenn - and she is out to inflict as much pain as possible. Why so hateful? Mostly because she's 15 (see paragraph, below). She doesn't really care about class - if she did she wouldn't be dating a 17 year old male version of Jenn, which also suggests to me that her hatred towards her stepmother is superficial.
The tension between the two women is mainly due to the fact that they are both at stages in their lives fraught with angst - Emma is at the peak of adolescence and Jenn has just approached what she considers to be 'middle age' and trying to come to terms with this. She is overly conscious of her 'aging' body - which I imagine is in a lot better shape than she makes out - and she envies the teens their youth. That Jenn is not Emma's birth mother is also part of the problem, as is the fact that she never got to have a child of her own. (Had either been the case I envisage an entirely different scenario.) All this seems to have triggered in Jenn a mid-life crisis. She demonstrates all the signs, including lusting after and becoming obsessed with Nathan. Without giving too much away - no doubt you can imagine - the scenario heads in a downward spiral as the plot unravels and makes for very interesting reading.
As for Jenn's relationship with Greg: they seem to be in a rut and she has lost interest in him (although possibly this is another symptom of the mid-life crisis). She certainly has no interest in him sexually and she seems to think he is content with his life and their marriage as things stand. It becomes clear that she doesn't know her husband as well as she thinks. He certainly deserves more credit than she gives him. The same applies to Emma. Despite having raised her from a very young age, she does not really know or understand her. In that sense, Jenn discovers who her husband and her stepdaughter really are on this holiday.
The Lemon Grove is a relatively short novel (288 pages) that reads very well. It is smart and perceptive but for me the best thing about it is the prose - it is a beautifully written piece of literary fiction, in my view. As for the ending... very nicely done.