We all behave differently when we’re on holiday, indulging ourselves and letting everything go a bit. But does being away from home really make life any different? Does it really change how we behave and how we live our lives?
It certainly seems to for Jenn, the central character in Helen Walsh’s The Lemon Grove. She is on holiday with her husband Greg, visiting the same villa in Mallorca they always do. Even before the drama that soon arrives on their doorstep, we see a little of what is brewing between them – Greg is distracted over his troubled work situation, and Jenn – well, Jenn is also distracted, but more over her own worries and fixations than anything concrete. She thinks about the past, what might have been, what she wants, and to me she seems obsessed with youth and her own ageing.
This seems a small thing but it remains consistent throughout the book – Jenn’s negative attitude towards the fact that she is ‘older’, and her insecurity about how she looks. Everyone has this, but Jenn sees her own lack of youth to be some sort of failure, like she has to constantly deal with the fact that in reality she doesn’t look as she wishes she does in her head.
Jenn’s issues become heightened when Greg’s teenage daughter Emma arrives with her boyfriend Nathan, a surly, moody teenager who doesn’t say much. He lurks about and keeps touching Emma in a way that seems a purposeful attempt to show Greg and Jenn that they are having sex – or at least to make them think that.
Jenn spends a lot of time being jealous of the closeness between Greg and Emma, resenting her own status as step-parent. She has been Emma’s step-mother for fifteen years, and yet she is still riled when Emma calls her ‘Mum’ – and when she does not. Either way she has a strong reaction and does not seem comfortable with her position, and is embittered by the fact that she does not have a biological child. Her feelings about motherhood are clearly conflicted.
Jenn also fixates on Emma’s youth and cannot accept her getting older and more adult, especially in terms of her having a boyfriend. Ah, yes, the boyfriend – Nathan. He is the ‘he’ in Jenn’s mind, the ‘stranger’ they let in. Jenn begins to watch him, to notice all the details of his body. Her obsession with youth becomes an obsession with him.
In the heat of the summer Jenn lusts after the brooding young man, her thoughts of him a welcome distraction from Emma’s moods and Greg’s sweet but unexciting attentions. Aside from being filled with lust, more than anything Jenn seems to be bored – with the holiday, with the people, with life. Nathan is new and exciting, and Jenn cannot resist. I am not giving anything away by saying that something happens between them.
The sex, the descriptions of Nathan’s body, Jenn alone the bath… all these descriptions are graphic, ‘shocking’, and Walsh is unafraid to scatter her elegant restrained prose with ‘cunt’ and ‘dick’, words that frankly do not sit well with the tone of the language. Personally I found the sex scenes &c graphic but not very ‘sexy’ – they are instead quite matter of fact, and a little lacking in beauty; and entirely lacking in love. Jenn and Nathan act out of lust and desperation.
There is also a moral question here – does Jenn feel guilty? Not only is she cheating on her husband, she is sleeping with her step-daughter’s boyfriend. And yet, she does not brood over her betrayals. She carries them out and then carries on with life. She is so utterly bored she almost seems not to care.
I found The Lemon Grove a slow starter, taking about 50 pages to really get into it. I loved the writing, but you need to spend some time with it for it to flow. I did not, however, like any of the characters – though I’m not sure how much you’re meant to. Jenn is cold and unhappy, unfaithful; Greg is nice but dull; Emma is Teenage Daughter; and Nathan is a bit inscrutable. At times he just seems like a teenager, at others he seems more devious and older than his years. I wasn’t sure what to make of him.
I won’t tell what happens at the end, but it was not what I expected. In a way this was good, but a little confusing. Also I’m not sure why it’s called The Lemon Grove – there’s one at their villa but it didn’t play a role or seem to symbolise anything – maybe I’m missing something?
One thing I am sure of is that this is a wonderfully written novel, and deserves your attention. It also has a very striking, beautiful cover. Read it! I’d love to hear what others think of it.
Published by Tinder Press, an imprint of Headline, on 27th Feb 2014. My copy was kindly provided by the publisher for review.