Thursday, August 19, 2010

The Lovers by Vendela Vida — 240 pgs


Book Cover When Yvonne, a recently widowed teacher, returns to Turkey to recapture the magic of her honeymoon trip twenty-six years earlier, she finds both herself and the familiar landscape much changed. Both unobtrusive yet obvious, Yvonne begins by renting a beach house from a wealthy Turkish gentleman sight unseen via the Internet. Finding herself alone at last, Yvonne reaches back into her mind to unravel both the comfortable and uncomfortable bits of her marriage and children's lives. Trying to escape the loneliness that she unexpectedly feels, Yvonne begins to reach out to the local community in the form of her lessor's estranged wife and a young boy who makes his living selling seashells. As Yvonne becomes emotionally steeped in the place she is visiting, she finds things are not what they seem and becomes uncomfortable both with the assumptions she has made and with the realities beneath them. After a series of bizarre incidents shake her confidence, Yvonne becomes more and more reliant on the young boy she has befriended. When an accident robs her of her peace of mind and affects the boy, Yvonne comes to realize that the pieces of herself that she has carried to Turkey are far more fragile than she ever imagined. Both sparse yet somehow ominous, The Lovers seeks to encapsulate both the fear and foreignness of the unknown as seen through the eyes of a woman on her own.

As much as I am a newcomer to women's fiction, for some strange reason, this book didn't really strike me as an example of the genre. Approaching it with only modest information and plot summaries, I had expected to find something a lot darker and more malevolent, and for the most part, I think the author was on the right track. Where I think this book failed for me was its penchant to drive more towards the themes of isolation and separation instead of the darker themes of desolation and aloneness. For me, it felt as if the author was afraid to take a risk and invest bleakness into this tale, and because this was exactly what I was craving from this book, it fell flat for me.

First of all, Yvonne seemed to be a very naive person. She travels to a foreign country alone and expects to stay in a house that she has never seen belonging to a man to whom she has incautiously wired one thousand dollars. When the story opens, Yvonne is waiting at the airport for one of the gentleman's drivers to meet her and she thinks she has been tricked because no one is there waiting for her. This all get sorted out rather quickly and things go on from there. This, I think, was my first clue that the book was not going to progress in the way I had previously thought. It would have injected so much more mystery and denseness into the plot had things not gone right with Yvonne's plans. Instead, she is relieved and feels that things are going along as scheduled. It was almost a cheap trick to dangle something sinister in the reader's face and then decide to smooth it out and play nice almost right away. This was a recurring habit that the book fell into. Yvonne would get herself into some spot of trouble and there would be a hint that things could go very, very wrong; suddenly, the trouble would pass and things would look almost rosy again. I never got the impression that Yvonne was fully aware of any of the things she was doing and her thoughtless actions seemed to be predicated on the fact that she was preoccupied with memories of her husband and children. I so would have loved to see a firm and grounded Yvonne who had been steeped in unfamiliar situations and danger having to rely on her resourcefulness and creativity to keep her afloat. What I got instead was a woman bumbling her way through a vacation filled with unpredictabilities.

I also felt that there was something missing in Yvonne's recollections of her family and the time they shared. Though she claims to others, and even believes herself, that her relationship with her husband was almost perfect, it was clear to me that there was a huge gulf between them. A lot of the story in this book draws from the idea that Yvonne is working through the death of her husband and trying to become whole after a tragic loss. It didn't really make sense to me because there were far too many passages about how difficult her relationship was and not enough about the good things they shared together. I felt the same about her relationship with her daughter. One of the plot points centers around her daughter's repeated forays into addiction, but instead of seeming weary and heartbroken, it almost seemed as if Yvonne was judging her and pitting her problems against their relationship. As a mother, this didn't ring true. No matter what your children do, it's hard not to see them as part of you and I just felt that Yvonne's mentions of emotionally cutting her off and her relief with her daughter's absence was somehow cold. I didn't buy that she was a woman given over to grieving and lamenting her relationships because it all felt too cut and dried for me. When life is messy and the people you love disappoint you, you don't just close yourself off from them, you fight the battles with them and share in their joys and sorrows.

As Yvonne continues on with her stay in Turkey, she finds herself in several different dramas and confusions. This all would have been fine and even intriguing if these pickles she kept getting herself into would have gone anywhere. As it was, it became an odd and sort of mish-mashed set of incidents that I had to shake my head at and wonder over. It just felt weird. Why have your main character doing strange things, saying strange things and acting out of character, when it would ultimately lead to nothing? When drama finally did appear in the story, it took me too long to finally realize that this was the crux that Vida had been building towards. Even thinking about it now, the drama of the final sections of the book felt contrived and almost hyper-conceptualized. Why take all of these other strange and portentous plot events and have them fizzle out, and then pick this one to focus on so strongly? I just didn't get it. Not only didn't I get the point of this plot element, I didn't get why Yvonne acted so irrational and out of character when faced by this unexpected event. It felt like the author was traveling several different roads and the only one that had a destination was not the one I wanted to be on.

I also didn't get the final sections of the book, and although it might have made sense in the abstract, it really didn't make sense in reality. It was an artsy ending, designed to make the rest of the book seem deeper, but I felt it came off as a bit ridiculous and improbable. I actually had to go back and reread the last chapter or two to try to figure out how this had happened, to no avail, might I add. I couldn't help but feel cheated and played by this improbable ending. It almost felt as if the author didn't know how to end a story that had gotten out of her hands and resorted to a cop-out. The end of the book was maddening. Where I had hoped for some conclusion that would tie this story all together, I ended up closing the book feeling puzzled and angry.

Though I had a lot of problems with the execution and plot of this book, I still think the author has a great ability to create atmosphere and tension in her writing. The problem was not that she failed at creating a credible drama, but that, time and time again, it fizzled out before its time had come. I do think that I would be interested in reading more from this author because I can't help but feel that the limitations in this story might be a fluke, or that she might be able to rework her writing into something very promising. This book never really took off for me but that's not to say that it wasn't an interesting story. I guess what I am trying to get at is that I think that the story had a lot of potential, it just got never really matured into something great.


This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

16 comments:

Amy said...

How disappointing :( I was interested in this book but I thought it was a lot darker and bleaker as well. I will be avoiding it now, as it sounds a little disjointed and unreal. Too bad!

Steph said...

I started reading an ARC of this one for work a while back and was just completely unable to connect with it, so I'm glad I decided to give it a pass and give up on it, because your review makes it sound like the parts really don't coalesce into a satisfying whole. There was something very dry and lifeless about the prose, I thought, which I thought was a real shame, because as you say, the premise seems really great!

bermudaonion said...

I read another review today that said this book fell short of it's promise. I'm really disappointed because I thought it sounded so good.

Jenny said...

It's frustrating when a book doesn't pay off what it's tried to set up. Some authors can do an anticlimax without its feeling like one, but (alas) mostly not.

Jenny said...

What a great analysis! I love the insight you provided. I read another review for this the other day that thought the book was absolutely great, but I can totally see your points too. This one isn't really calling out to me so I'll probably hold off for now.

Darlene said...

I see this book was only 240 pgs. It seems as though this was one of those books that could have been much more developed. It's too bad - it certainly sounds like a promising story. Sorry it fell short for you. That's disappointing when that happens.

Sandy Nawrot said...

Right, Swapna had the same takeaway on this book. You don't have to be an expert in women's literature to see where a book has gone wrong, and I think your observations sound spot on. I don't think I'll be reading this one any time soon, but great review Heather!

nomadreader said...

We certainly have different perspectives on this one: it's one of my favorite reads so far this year. I don't think it has mass appeal at all, and I would not classify it as women's fiction. I'm sorry you didn't care for it, but I still really enjoyed your review!

Jennifer @ Mrs. Q: Book Addict said...

I've seen a few reviews of this one, and I don't think it will be one i'll be adding to my wishlist.

Bibliophile By the Sea said...

I liked this book, however, her previous book was superior...Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name. Have you read it? TRY IT!

S. Krishna said...

I didn't really love this one either, it didn't work for me. I saw it as literary fiction, rather than women's fiction.

Suko said...

Very thoughtful review. It makes me wonder about the balance of bleakness and hope in fiction.

Ladytink_534 said...

I don't read as much "women's fiction" as I used to anymore.

Elizabeth said...

I didn't ever connect with this one either- but you do a much better job of explaining why! =)

Nymeth said...

I've seen some great reviews of this out there, so I started reading your post thinking that you had loved it too - I'm so sorry that wasn't the case :\ It sounds like Vida is an author to keep an eye on anyway, though, even if this one fell short.

Aarti said...

Oh, sad! I know just what you mean when you say that sometimes you really crave something a little darker and shadier and then come away with something that doesn't quite meet the bill. I'm sorry this one didn't work for you. I have a feeling it wouldn't work for me, either. I guess not all books can be winners like Lions of Al-Rassan ;-)

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