It is easy to understand the popularity of Anne Enright’s fiction, both in Ireland where she lives and works, and here. Her characters suffer, and we always have room in our hearts for other people’s troubles. Their troubles are frequently romantic and sexual, sometimes financial, invariably familial. Guilt and blame do their usual nasty work. But the strongest feeling in Enright’s new book, “The Forgotten Waltz,’’ is disappointment. In her previous novel “The Gathering’’ (2007), which won a Booker Prize, feelings are rawer: heartbreak and misery resulting from early and prolonged sexual abuse - a staple in today’s fiction much as consumption was a century and a half ago.
Enright’s setting is Ireland, where families are very big - too big, at least under her scrutiny, to flourish emotionally. Siblings dislike each other, or like each other overmuch; few children can bear their parents. Both “The Gathering’’ and “The Forgotten Waltz’’ suggest the scarring effects on the previous generation of poverty and of interminable and unterminatable pregnancies; the books reveal the secret that sexual freedom has not turned out as satisfying for this generation as had been expected; and that prosperity has brought problems of vulgarity and when it dwindles, problems of downward slides. Enright writes about these subjects with authority.
But it is somewhat difficult to understand the critical esteem Enright’s work has achieved. “The Gathering’’ is “the intellectual equivalent of a Hollywood weepy,’’ she herself said after receiving the Booker Prize.
In “The Forgotten Waltz,’’ a story of adultery, revelations are not prefigured but instead let abruptly out of the bag. Social commentary relies on the Brand Name Trick - people are characterized by the clothes they wear and the furniture around them. Striking sentences occur at intervals, as if the writer has sharpened her pencil for the clever bit and then scribbled the next paragraphs with the side of the graphite.
The novel is filled with missed opportunities for plot and character development. In an episode of love-making the narrator remarks: “After the kiss . . . the actual sex was a bit too actual, if you know what I mean.’’ I can figure out what she means - the uplift brought about by thrilling foreplay did not continue in the act itself - but the author has chosen not to do the writerly work necessary to arouse and then disappoint us along with the participants. Instead she resorts to amateurish wordplay and a chummy remark.
The most memorable character in “The Forgotten Waltz’’ is not ultimately the first person narrator Gina Moynihan, present in every scene, but the damaged daughter of Gina’s lover, present rarely. Young Evie with her mysterious ailment preys on many minds including the reader’s. Enright inserts Evie’s scenes skillfully, and keeps us curious. But the history of her illness is flat, and we plod through her unpleasant childhood into her unpleasant present.
Gina, having left her marriage to take up with the philandering Seán, winds up with his daughter. Some reviewers claim that Gina’s fate is as tragic as that of Anna Karenina and Emma Bovary. But Gina’s lover is unconvincingly irresistible, no Vronsky; and her cuckolded husband is a pale Charles Bovary.
I hope that this gifted writer can ignore the careless praise that has been heaped upon her work. She is not the equal of Tolstoy or Flaubert. Nor is she the equal of her own brilliant contemporaries, the late Penelope Fitzgerald or A.S. Byatt. But so what? She has a dark take on life and a talent for conveying the shifting sands we all try to stand on and the shifting viewpoints we all endure. These qualities have earned her a faithful readership. To her fans “The Forgotten Waltz’’ will provide a continuation of old pleasures. Newcomers might be better off starting with “The Gathering.’’
Or . . . they might start with the short stories. “Yesterday’s Weather,’’ published in 2008, makes use of family conflicts, love problems, and changes in Ireland, just as do the two novels under discussion. But perhaps because the short form demands arresting descriptions and succinct dialogue, many of these tales bristle with the wit that comes from that compression. A newcomer might open the book to “Little Sister,’’ a devastating tale about an anorexic. All the sentences are written with the point of the pencil; there is no idle scribbling in the spaces between them.Edith Pearlman received the 2011 PEN/Malamud Award for excellence in short fiction. Her fourth collection, “Binocular Vision,’’ was published this year. She can be reached at email@example.com.