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.

24 thoughts on “Not Your Average Holiday Romance

  1. I’m really glad that you chose to review this. The cover would have been enough to put me off without a second thought were it not for the fact that so many people have been recommending it this Summer. Now that you’ve written so cogently about it I can see that it is not the vacuous Summer read that I had been imagining but neither, however good the writing, is it a book for me. Thank you for reducing my tbr list by one:-)

    • Heh, it’s often a relief to think there’s one book out there I don’t actually want to read! And yes, I can quite understand why this wouldn’t be everyone’s cup of tea – not the most attractive of storylines.

  2. Have you ever seen a very good film called The Mother? Sounds like this has a not totally dissimilar plot. This is not the sort of novel I would ever be attracted to picking up, but you’ve made it sound really intriguing! Thanks.

  3. I very nearly passed over The Lemon Grove thanks to incessant tweeting by the publishers but I was persuaded by another blogger’s enthusiasm and in the end enjoyed it. As you say, Walsh knows how to write and has a nice line in the kind of stripped down prose I admire. I had a similar experience with The Vacationers, another summer read which turned out to be much better than its cover suggests. Now I’ll have to add Chéri to my ever-lengthening list!

    • I’m so glad our opinions coincide! I’ve had The Vacationers on my radar and have been undecided what to do. Now I expect I will certainly get hold of a copy – I read the author’s previous novel and enjoyed it. I would love to know what you think of Colette – she is one of my all-time favourites, and a love that survived an academic thesis. You don’t find many of those!

  4. Really glad to have read a well thought out review of this. I’ve got a review copy lurking somewhere in my bedroom (not one I requested, to my recollection), but I must admit, I was pretty skeptical that I would enjoy it after skimming through it. A good review was just what I needed🙂

    • Ooh I would be very intriguing indeed to know what a man made of this book. If you are passing, do leave me your url so I can click through to your site. I’m not absolutely sure you would enjoy it, though I’d be curious to know how it goes down.

  5. Not for me I think (and I agree it’s a relief not to add it to Mount TBR). For one thing, I don’t always find I get on with present tense. And it does sound just a tad cliched. As you say, what can possibly compare with Colette??🙂

  6. Okay, that’s the second time today I’ve read the phrase “Marmite book” and I tried googling and I’m still not sure what it means. Help?

    I just read a Canadian book somewhat in the vein – cheating, though with the more traditional older guy/younger woman combo – called Infidelity by Stacey May Fowles that was good because it also didn’t attempt to justify or moralize. I’ve read mixed reviews of this one but it sounds interesting.

    • Heh, yes, well, Marmite, a yeast-extract spread for toast or sandwiches, was advertised for a while as something you either love or hate. And that slogan sort of stuck and exceeded its own reach, so other things were termed ‘Marmite’, as in, you won’t have weak feelings about them – they’ll be strong and at one end of the scale or the other.

      Thank you for the other recommendation. I am always intrigued by books I haven’t heard of – I’ll look it up.

  7. Like Susan, I read this at the same time as I read The Vacationers, which is also set on Mallorca. I think you’ve written a very fair review – a story that could potentially be clumsy or obvious is less so thanks to good writing. I did love The Vacationers much much more. Have you considered it?

    • I have indeed been considering that book! I enjoyed the first one by Emma Strauss that I read. Thank you for the nudge! I’ll definitely pick it up now.

  8. You made me laugh with “Fifty Shades of Sunburn”, Victoria! It does sound better than that, but still not one I’ll be adding to my TBR list. I enjoyed reading your review more than I think I’d enjoy reading the book itself.

  9. I stumbled over the expression “Marmite book” as well. I know what Marmite is but what could it mean in this context.
    I don’t think this is for me. Fifty Shades of Sunburn. Hehe. That made me chuckle.

  10. “Fifty Shades of Sunburn” ha! You made me laugh at that one! I have no issues with reading about infidelity and I thought, hey at last, older woman-younger man, about time really. Still, the book isn’t really my cup of tea but I am glad it was good!

  11. I find myself often disappointed with books that try to depict lust and desire (eg Apple Tree Yard). Often the author seems to equate acts of complicated or unusual sexual passion with a depiction of chemistry. How did this one come across?

  12. Do you know anyone who loves Marmite? My brother and I tried it on our most recent visit to London, and we did not love it. I’m trying to imagine why anyone would!

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