The allure of a holiday romance doesn’t end with one’s teenage years, as Shirley Valentine taught me back in 1989.
Jenn and Greg are enjoying their annual trip to the heavenly Deia on Mallorca. A seemingly happily married couple in their middle-age - but what does that mean anymore? - Jenn’s definitely feeling something, but it’s not old. She has mixed feelings about the impending arrival of her step-daughter Emma and boyfriend Nathan. It’s the first time someone outside the family unit has come along and Jenn is rightly apprehensive about the altered group dynamics.
Nathan is a hot little piece of naughtiness, newly aware of his sexual power, and wanting to have everything, all of it, now. I remember boys like that, best steered clear of but so irresistible. I think it’s his attitude as much as his physical presence that stirs some nostalgic longing in Jenn. As Emma grows into a young woman Jenn is reminded of her own missed opportunities and disappointments. Nathan scratches an itch that’s been building in Jenn. She responds to his obvious interest in her and being found desirable allays her fears about her body ageing faster than her self (which raises interesting questions about our cultural mind-body duality). She crosses multiple boundaries when she allows her body to overrule her good intentions, matching Nathan’s lust with her own.
Of course, morally it’s easy to judge Jenn. She’s cheating on her husband and betraying an unspoken pact between mothers and daughters. She’s also transgressing by having an affair with a much younger man, which tends to raise eyebrows regardless. But, it’s not really difficult to understand why she does it. Nathan is potent and vital. He highlights Greg’s flaws and in wanting Jenn he emphasises the age gap between husband and wife. Jenn doesn’t love Nathan, I’m not sure she even likes him, but he can reduce her to a quivering throbbing wreck with a glance. It takes an iron will to walk away from attraction like that.
The relationship between Jenn and Emma is an interesting one. Jenn is Emma’s step-mum, but she’s also the only mother Emma has actually known. Now, at 15, Emma’s testing the boundaries of their relationship, using the mum title less frequently and strategically. Jenn knows she’s being manipulated and naturally feels hurt by it. She’s also dealing with not having had a child herself, which is a greater source of pain than she lets anyone in on. There’s a tinge of resentment that there has always been a child present in her relationship with Greg, but that even now, that child is not fully hers.
The change of scenery that the holiday brings combines freedom with familiarity; it’s not home but they know the place intimately. Jenn gives herself to the place completely and I have to say I loved her abandon even while I watched her self-destruct the life she’s carefully built. There were clearly problems niggling away within the family before Nathan. He’s just the beautifully packaged catalyst for Jenn to reassess her needs.
I love the way Helen Walsh writes about female sexuality; her writing is immediate and visceral. I thought her previous novel Go To Sleep was excellent and The Lemon Grove is even better. It’s a book to settle yourself down with and indulge in, allowing the sun-kissed atmosphere to override everyday concerns. The writing slips down effortlessly, but the tale is too morally ambiguous to be an easy read – and that’s what I loved about it the most.
The Lemon Grove is published by Tinder Press today in Hardback. I was sent an advance copy by the publishers.