Not Your Average Holiday Romance

lemongroveHelen Walsh’s The Lemon Grove is definitely going to be a Marmite book. How you feel about it will probably depend on your tolerance for Forbidden Passion; Madame Bovary is probably a good acid test. Imagine it mixed up with a holiday-from-hell narrative and you’re not so far off this succès de scandale.

Jenn and Greg Harding are at the end of an idyllic first week of holiday in their Mallorcan villa. Each year they return to Deià on the rocky west coast for the beauty of the landscape, the luscious food, their stylish accommodation. This year is going to be a little different. Usually they come out of season when it’s cooler, but here they are in the furnace heat of full summer, for Jenn’s stepdaughter, Emma, a precocious and rather spoiled 15-year-old, is flying out to join them with her new boyfriend, Nathan. Jenn and Greg have been together so long that Emma feels almost like the child of their marriage, but there are clearly fault lines of tension that reveal the scars of the family graft. Greg is only a moderately-paid academic, but he will spend lavishly, and somewhat secretively, on Emma. He is a sop for her melodramatic teenage ways, too. Whilst Jenn often feels that Emma’s drama queen antics require a bit of cold treatment, Greg is a willing audience to her every emotion. And of course, Emma is growing up and as highly-strung and volatile as any adolescent; rebellion and rejection are braided into her behaviour with her parents.

Things begin badly when Emma’s arrival catches Jenn unawares. She has been sunbathing topless and has fallen asleep, and her groggy attempts to get her clothes on over her sticky skin bring out Emma’s contempt and embarrassment. It’s only much later that Jenn realises the real reason for her anger is that Nathan saw her too. Nathan is a young Apollo with a Manchunian accent and the narrative pants and drools over him: ‘He is wearing a pair of plain blue swimming shorts, otherwise, he is naked before her. He is muscular, but graceful with it, balletic. He is shockingly pretty.’ And thus the plot of the book instantly unfurls before us. Jenn is forty-five and on the cusp of a crinkly middle-age; Nathan is forbidden fruit every which way you look at it, but he’s also gorgeous, virile and apparently hot for her. Yikes.

In all fairness to Helen Walsh this is a great deal better than one might fear. It could so easily have descended into Fifty Shades of Sunburn, but it’s infinitely classier than that. The story moves at an inexorable pace, steadily ratcheting up the tension, so that even quite ordinary holiday-making events like visiting a local market or taking a late-night swim are rimed with an aura of dread. The writing is very good; the rocky promontaries of the coastline, the self-consciously artisanal local stores of tourist regions, the succulent food, the treacherous currents of the sea are all vividly rendered and provide a suitably wild landscape with that hint of holiday dislocation against which strange and unusual things may happen.

The relationship itself is also cleverly portrayed. Walsh doesn’t bother attempting justification: Jenn knows full well she is doing a crassly stupid thing, but she can’t seem to help herself. She loves her husband, but there’s a moment when she looks at him, working at his laptop in the villa:

observing him now in the hard white glow of the desk lamp, his body has never looked so slack, so tired. The loose skin of his chest hangs down as he hunches over the pad. His skin looks lived in; soon he will be like the crones in the backstreets. His pelt will hang from his body like old pyjamas.’

It simply isn’t fair. Nathan’s peachy perfection, his taut muscular body and smooth beautiful face are a taunting sensual delight, irresistible. This isn’t about having anything in common, or admiring one another’s good qualities. It’s sheer lust.

As I’ve said before, it’s situational clichés that bother me, and I wasn’t sure how I’d get on with the older woman-younger man thing. Not because I have shockable morals, but because I have a blueprint in Colette’s amazing novel, Chéri, that I didn’t think could be surpassed. This doesn’t come anywhere near Chéri for me, and I did heave a sigh when the climax finds one of the teenagers missing in a storm. But it’s not a bad piece of beach entertainment; a narrative that holds together well, written with a lot of style, and that ends very cunningly. I’ve heard the ending described as ambiguous, but that’s just plain wrong: it’s one of those endings where one small clue tells you exactly what’s going to happen although the narrative stops short of describing it. I thought that was rather good.

Monday Miscellany

1. Finally something properly good has happened for my son. He has a job in a well-known pub in London’s West End. This was entirely his own doing – he put together a CV and went around the pubs in his vicinity, asking if any were short-staffed, gradually widening his circle. Last week he did a couple of trial shifts and today he begins behind the bar. He says the people seem nice and it’s really, really busy. I am so pleased for him; to rescue oneself is a powerful experience. I had a post half written in my head about what it’s been like these past few months, and what we’ve all learned from them, but I can’t bring myself to write it down today. I feel worn out with relief.

2. One thing, though, is that recovery is not a linear event. It is circular. Round and around we go, pressing the bruises, feeling the pain, stepping back, irresistibly drawn to pressing them again. It seems like stasis, like being stuck, but more preparation for change is going on than we imagine. The paradox is that the emotional pain gets worse every time those bruises are pressed, not better, because each time we confront the reality of what has happened with more clarity, each time we can bear to face it a little more.

3. Another paradox: I believe that if we can find someone to help us bear witness to our big emotions and then feel them without any of those complicating problems of shame or embarrassment, then we can work through emotions much faster. But it’s very, very hard to be that witness, particularly for people we love. Their pain is our pain. Watching them suffer arouses unresolved emotions of our own. And emotion exerts a huge pressure of distortion. When we are not in the same place, the emotional person seems quite mad, such is the extent of distortion. And then we long to bring their perspective back in line with the reality we’ve all agreed is sane.

4. I think we have too limited an understanding of what sanity is, and that it’s easy to be afraid of anything lying beyond those narrow confines. I think there’s far too much insistence on people being strong and happy and flawless, that this ignores the reality of what it is to be human. If we don’t acknowledge negative emotions in ourselves, then either they turn inwards and attack us with anxiety, low self-esteem, lack of trust, or else they get displaced. When people rage and rant in an excessive way, about things that are irritating or annoying, yes, but maybe not as bad as all that, then I think it’s displaced emotions coming out over some issue that feels more justified than the one that caused the emotions in the first place. And then there’s the third option: contempt or indifference towards people in pain. The urge to think oneself superior, better than that. It’s a strong position inside but ugly from the outside.

5. Hmm, I’ll stop before I actually write the post I said I wouldn’t write, but I will add that any deduction I’ve made above comes from the trial and error of getting it wrong a lot of the time. I’ve had to do a lot of learning from mistakes.

6. I must apologise for being so bad at commenting on other blogs lately. I’m reading, but my thinking-of-the-right-thing-to-say muscle seems to be weary. I’m not actually in the mood for writing much of anything.

7. I have been watching a lot of television, which is most unusual for me. Mr Litlove was competing in the town rowing races last week, which meant I could watch whatever I liked. I ended up really getting into the first season of Downton Abbey, and whilst I am probably the last person in the world to watch it, I have to say it was completely splendid. Maggie Smith as the Dowager Countess of Grantham is brilliant, and the casting of Mr Bates was a stroke of genius (though I fear for that man’s fate – he has the face for suffering). I really admired the way the multiple storylines were handled; only the very last episode tried to squeeze too much in. My mum has the next two series on DVD and I guess I’ll be borrowing them from her.

8.  I’ve also been enjoying the sheer madness that is Boston Legal. I think these must be the most unprofessional bunch of lawyers ever to tread the far margins of legal ethics, but once again the acting is the thing. James Spader is outrageously good; he manages to be simultaneously arrogant and supercilious and dangerous and endearing and charismatic with more integrity than all the others put together. Plus seeing William Shatner as a complete psycho is a lot of fun, and very un-Captain Kirkish.

9. We’ve also been watching Hustle, which is Mr Litlove’s favourite and the one he always votes for, when it comes to a vote. We’ve watched the first four seasons and there’s hardly been a duff episode. They’re conmen (and woman) but with Robin Hood’s philosophy and it’s a treat to find something that’s a lot of fun as well as neatly plotted and rather smart. I never tire of watching the baddies brought down. If only such prescience were available in reality!

 

 

Various Updates

I realised that there have been a few ongoing plotlines chez Litlove that I haven’t updated lately. For instance, my painful arm and shoulder which I thought for a long time was due to a trapped nerve. You may recall (though I forgive you if you don’t, it’s been a while) that I had had both osteopathy and phyiotherapy with no particular result. My arm seemed to be settling into its compromised movement and nothing made an impact on it. So I decided to try the Alexander Technique.

Well, never has there been a better example of brain triumphing over brawn. The Alexander Technique is extremely gentle, a lot of patting and smoothing by my practitioner who has gradually been easing the knots out of my nerves and muscles. I’ve had about five or six sessions and almost unbelievably, the situation is improving. I can move my arm far more freely than I could before, and with only the odd twinge here and there. After seven months of zero progress and being cracked and twisted and pummelled in often painful ways, this feels nothing short of miraculous. My only problem is I’m too scared of tempting fate to triumphantly announce my cure. So we won’t go there. But my goodness, has she made an improvement! People, if you have muscular-skeletal issues, find yourself an Alexander Technique practitioner. It’s not just effective, it’s actively pleasant. My practitioner is not a great talker, though she likes a laugh, and my memory of our sessions will be of her uncluttered room with sunlight streaming in and the extreme peacefulness of her gentle attention. And of course the tap-dancing skeleton, who has also become a serene witness, his skull a little on one side in quizzical observation.

The problem has been caused not so much by repetitive strain as repetitive bad posture. My left hand is the one I hold books in, and my practice has been to tuck my elbow into my side while I read and bend my head down towards the page. Over the winter months, when I get chilly from sitting still, I tend to carry around my microwaveable wheat baggie, which I also stick under my left arm – it’s got a book at the end of it and is clamped to my side anyway, hence the arrangement. And my left side is the one I go to sleep on, often with that arm wedged underneath me. So twenty-four-seven that arm has been held at an awkward angle without my noticing what I was doing. The muscles at the back of my neck and down into my shoulder have probably scrunched up into a big clump that was putting pressure on the bone, and muscles have a long and persistent memory. It will take a while to remind them that they do not have to exist in their old, embattled position. I need to make long-term adjustments to my practices – books propped on cushions on my lap or in book stands on a table, a writing slope for taking notes and much reduced use of my laptop.

I’m still considering taking up pilates in the summer, but I’ll definitely be sticking with tai chi. I started in the beginners’ class back at the end of January and have recently moved up to what they call ‘continuing’ classes. This was a shock to the system. I’d grown to love my beginners’ class and our tight little group of four initiates and four experts. We spent our weeks slowly learning a whole ‘set’ of tai chi which has over a hundred moves in it. I can do it, so long as I’ve got people around me I can follow – as our instructor said, the one thing tai chi really improves is your peripheral vision – and I think it’s beautiful. The movements are slow and graceful and often satisfying in a profound way I don’t have words to describe. This alone is probably very good for me – the fact it’s a couple of non-verbal hours in my life. Oddly enough I’ve turned out to be good at it, which is surprising after all those years of being a sports dunce and the last person picked for any team. And of course I don’t feel particularly good at it; it just feels sort of straightforward to do. Doubtless years of ballet as a child helped. Being twenty years younger than the others is my secret weapon.

So, anyway, I’ve moved up to the next class which is packed. There must be thirty or so people who turn up for it, and after the expansiveness of being eight in a large hall, we’re now all crammed in sardine-like which has proved hot the past few weeks. We begin by going twice through the full set, which feels like it might last forever (in reality it lasts about 40 minutes). And then we do a bunch of foundation exercises, which we do for another long, long time. After that comes a 25 minute break and then a final half hour working on a small part of the form. I’m gradually meeting a few people as they are all very friendly. Two sisters introduced themselves to me, one of whom, poor woman, is currently fighting two types of cancer which is more courage than I can imagine having. She was cheerier than me, too, which was rather humbling. ‘Did you tell her about your bad arm?’ Mr Litlove asked me when I recounted this. ‘And your sore gum?’ Husbands, dontcha love ‘em? I actually told her sister that I’d had 13 years of chronic fatigue and felt let off lightly by comparison. Lots of people in the class have health reasons for being there, as it’s supposed to be a very gentle but effective exercise. Gentle and effective is certainly what’s working for me right now.

And then my son is still not exactly what you’d call happy, but he has recently signed onto a temp agency that supplies waiters and bar staff to social functions. He’s done this mostly under his own steam, and is hopeful that it will earn him a bit of cash and give him useful skills and experience. In about ten days time he is going on holiday to Spain with ten of his friends, which is the good news. The bad news is that his ex-girlfriend is one of them and they began organising the trip before they split. Goodness only knows what will come of this trip; it could be anything from some necessary closure to emotional chaos. But my son has evidently thought it all through and decided he wants to go nevertheless. Even though he knows it’s not likely, I expect there’s a part of him that hopes they might get back together, which Mr Litlove fears but I doubt. ‘Though if we do get back together, I won’t tell you and Dad,’ he said, to which threat I couldn’t help but smile and say that the list of things I didn’t need to be told was surprisingly long and included dangerous expeditions, late night emo showdowns and trips to the ER. My neighbour was telling me her theory the other day that we have been too nice to our kids while they were growing up and so are involved in their adolescent shenanigans when their normal response ought to be to keep them well out of our sight. I like that theory; I may just run with it.

 

How Not To Give Good Advice

I’ve been on a run of books lately that all deal with heartbreak and grief. In one a man flies aimlessly around the world for two years, unable to come to terms with the loss of his beloved. In another, an otherwise staid headmaster takes off his clothes and walks naked through a snowy Central Park, in what turns out to be the last of a series of hallucinations produced by an unhinged mind. In a third, we don’t know what happened, only that there was an ominous silence in the story for six years. I’m not sure if the gods of literature are trying to make me feel better or worse about my son, who is still often lost and lacking direction after his brush with heartbreak. The novels are all in agreement, however, about the state of mourning love: the mourner needs people and pushes them away, he wants to do things but cannot summon the energy, there is a blank absence of purpose and nothing makes much sense. Many people give well-meant but infuriating advice, larded with the usual platitudes.

The latter has been me, it seems, lately. Honestly, you’d think I’d never dealt with a troubled student before in my life. For four years, I calmly accepted whatever the students threw at me in terms of personal problems and I barely flinched. I felt great compassion, usually, for their struggles and a firm, steady belief that they would get past them and find their way again. In fact, I was generally convinced that what they were doing in their personal wilderness would turn out to be very valuable in the long run. As painful as their experiences might be, it was quite likely they were losing comfortable illusions that really didn’t do them any good, and getting closer to the inconvenient truth of who they were. In other words, they were growing up.

But when it’s my son who’s miserable, it feels completely different. Here I am, instantly exhorting him to buck up and feel better, to try something new and take a chance, all things that frankly you have to be feeling strong to even comtemplate doing. Forget taking the time it takes to heal, I want him back up on his feet right now, or yesterday, ideally. We fell out on the phone at the start of the week because he was expressing a feeling that he had no future, and I was instantly trying to point out how ridiculous such a statement was, coming from a 19-year-old. And I really should know better! If I had forgotten that we calculate the future by taking a snapshot of the past, I should remember at least that when we feel properly miserable, the only way forward is one day at a time, or a half-day on the bleak stretches.

What becomes very clear to me is that when we say ‘Buck up’, we are really saying, please take your pain out of the public view because it is causing me discomfort. And we’re also saying, a little bit, I am superior, because if it were me, I would recover quicker and easier than you are doing; I wouldn’t make such a fuss. Things, in other words, that are designed to make us feel better, and have nothing to do with the person who’s sad. The nicest interpretation of the buck-up is that sometimes we have to hold a positive image of the other person’s strengths while they have temporarily lost access to it. And sometimes we can remind them of all the possibilities and opportunities that they still possess. But the main thing that study support taught me – and which I seem daily to forget – is that healing emotions and minds is exactly like healing physical ailments. If you’ve broken a leg, you can’t just get up and walk on it, there’s a process to be gone through. If you’ve broken a heart, there’s all sorts of feelings that can’t be accessed until the time is right for them.

But this is much easier to accept when you are not invested in the life and happiness of the person who suffers. I am caught by my longing for my son to feel happy again, because I love him and I hate the fact he’s sad. I would do anything to make him better. In fact, the one saving grace of late is that when I have clumsily counselled him and he has got mad at me, it does seem to relieve some of his feelings. I find this reassuring – I can mess up and yet somehow this turns out to be okay! When I’m feeling sensible, I do realise this is the extent of my possible involvement, as the most powerful thing he can do is to rescue himself. In the meantime, I have plenty of novels reminding me of this, though once I’ve finished the one I’m reading, I may look for something with jokes. It seems there’s only so much good advice that anyone can take.