The Lemon Grove (27 February 2014) by Helen Walsh
The Lemon Grove is a breathless, read-it-in-a-day kind of book, heavy with atmosphere and feeling, the type of story that is almost hallucinogenic in its evocation of place and character. Its focus is Jenn, a bored and restless fortysomething woman who is holidaying in Mallorca with her older husband, Greg, a lecturer. The holiday is a long-established family tradition, but this year the equilibrium has been disturbed: Jenn's step-daughter Emma is now fifteen, newly aware of her sexuality and desirability, and this year she has insisted on bringing along a boyfriend, Nathan. As the story begins, Jenn is awaiting Nathan's arrival: the chain of events that is set in motion thereafter threatens to throw everything into jeopardy for all the members of this rapidly-changing family.
This book is short, quick, and unfolds over the course of just a week. I found it compulsively readable, and finished it within two brief train journeys. But it also contains a great deal of depth. Jenn is a great character: relatable, flawed, human. The narrative offers continuous insight into her psyche, the constant push and pull of her dangerous attraction to Nathan, the conflicting resentment and love of Emma, the all-pervading dissatisfaction that keeps you guessing all the way to the end. Yet at the same time as I felt I knew everything about her, there was always something that remained fundamentally unknowable, like I couldn't get to the heart of who she was, and it was this, more than anything, that made her seem like a real person. Emma is brilliantly drawn too, not particularly likeable - and she is as simultaneously vacuous and pretentious as you'd expect a spoilt 15-year-old to be - yet her vulnerability shines through. Other reviewers have remarked that the relationship between Jenn and Emma is the most believable and compelling of the novel, and I'd have to agree. Despite the extremity of what transpires between Jenn and Nathan, the interaction between Jenn and her step-daughter is nuanced and thoughtful.
The plot is peppered with red herrings and unexpected turns. When Jenn makes bad decisions, the pull of the narrative is so effective it's like you're standing right next to her as she steps off the edge of a cliff. The narrative is also heavily sexual, switching between the erotic and the uncomfortable. Jenn's thoughts about Nathan, and ultimately her double betrayal - of both her husband and her step-daughter - with him are explicitly detailed and, given Nathan's youth, this is both disturbing and exciting. Jenn's imaginings frequently skim over the details of Emma and Nathan's relationship, in a sort of queasy awareness-slash-fascination around what they may (or may not) be doing. For the reader, as well as for Jenn, this feels both faintly unpleasant and undeniably arousing.
In many ways Jenn and Nathan's involvement is like a microcosm of an affair, running the whole gamut of emotions from uncontrollable lust to eventual repulsion. In depicting every nuance of the situation, the disgust and self-hatred involved as well as the power of the sexual element, the obsession with a lover's body, the exhilarating seediness of it all, The Lemon Grove is far sexier than a whole stack of 'erotica' with pictures of a necklace/high-heeled shoe/some satin ribbon on the (invariably black) cover. It could legitimately be called something clichéd like 'a steamy poolside read', but it's so much more than that too. To top it all off, there's a great ending - ambiguous, but not frustratingly so, which allows the reader to make up his or her own mind about the ultimate outcome of these events.
I loved The Lemon Grove. It's one of those stories that stays with you, the setting brought to life so effectively that it's as if you've been there. It would make a great film, but then, having read the book, I already feel as if I've seen the film. I'm rubbish at sticking to promises like this, but I'm determined I WILL read more of Helen Walsh's work at some point. I also recommend that everyone gives this book a go, if not this Thursday (when it's published), then definitely when you head off on holiday this summer.
I received an advance review copy of The Lemon Grove from the publisher through NetGalley.
Rating: 8/10 | Twitter | Goodreads | Booklikes | Bloglovin' | Pre-order on Amazon: Kindle & Hardback