Jenn and Greg are happily married and enjoying their annual vacation in Majorca. After a week spent alone, drinking, swimming, sunbathing, and languorous afternoon sex, the two are joined by Greg’s daughter Emma arrives with her new boyfriend, Nathan. Their arrival alters the chemistry of the house, and Jenn finds herself drawn to Nathan despite her better judgment. At the end of the week, nothing will be the same–for any of the four.
This short, sexy novel is being touted as a literary beach read, and that’s probably fairly apropos. Helen Walsh’s sparse novel takes aim at a woman on the cusp of middle-age who finds herself viscerally drawn to someone completely inappropriate for her in many ways. Walsh’s writing is sparse but also taut, and while readers will enjoy the crackling tension between Jenn and Nathan–and it is there, no doubt about it–they will also feel the suspense of what could happen if they two get found out. It’s a book readers won’t be able to put down.
What is commendable is how Walsh doesn’t shy away from the book’s exploration of aging, of lust and love, of the ins and outs of marriage. Jenn is aware of her own body and her aging, but she also recognizes her own sexuality. This frankness makes the book all the more compelling, and Jenn’s conflicted feelings about her thoughts and actions all the more intense. There’s never any doubt that what is happening is wrong, but that’s part of what makes it so exciting.
And there’s never any doubt that everything is going to turn out okay for everyone, which also makes for an interesting read. The tension throughout the book is expertly done, and the taut narrative makes this a page-turner of the highest order. This reviewer blew through this in one sitting, and weeks later is still thinking about the characters.
Perhaps the book’s only downfall is that the characters aren’t fully developed. Nathan and Greg sometimes feel like props for Jenn’s thoughts and actions, and while her relationship with Emma has some nuance, she falls a little flat. Even Jenn, whom readers spend so much time with, has limitations in terms of development. Readers are given no sense of who she is outside of this vacation, making her actions seem all the more wild. But that might also be Walsh’s point: vacation makes people do crazy, stupid things.
The Lemon Grove by Helen Walsh. Doubleday: 2014. Library copy.