Five years ago, Helen Walsh won the Somerset Maugham Award, a prestigious literary prize given to British authors under 35. Last week, Walsh’s US publisher held an online giveaway that paired her latest novel, “The Lemon Grove,” with a tote bag and a beach towel.
Whether or not you enjoy it may depend on how you feel about the erotic potential of virile teenage boys, suffering middle-aged women, and Serrano ham. With an abundance of subversive sex scenes, “The Lemon Grove” may draw comparisons to “Fifty Shades of Grey,” but Walsh’s novel clearly has much more ambition.
The novel follows Jenn Harding, husband Greg, and stepdaughter Emma on their annual trek to Majorca. The reader is encouraged to identify with Jenn, the “elegant yet enigmatic and, yes, sexy” protagonist who, despite her “copper brown” skin, “deep cleavage,” and hair the color of “spiced auburn,” has become unsure of her sex appeal.
Greg, a professor of Romantic literature, is supportive, if a bit dull. Fifteen-year-old Emma is somewhat trickier, but only in the manner of normal, irritating teenage girls.
Emma’s boyfriend, Nathan, is something else altogether. Manipulative and self-possessed, he fills Jenn with a terrible longing. “His shoulders are sprayed with freckles, his hair, thick and dark, cropped at the sides and weighty on top, the haircut all young boys have except this is no boy is it? He may be only seventeen but he’s a man.”
Is he a man or is Jenn a bored and deluded married person? No matter. Lust quickly overrides Jenn’s guilty feelings and better judgment, and they start doing it apace. Jenn and Greg’s seemingly happy marriage teeters into a morass of betrayal and disappointment as their family is torn apart by the inappropriate affair.
This plot puts “The Lemon Grove” squarely in the tradition of those narratives where middle-class lives are shattered by a series of unexpected events that exploit character flaws, revealing cracks in characters’ civilized exteriors. In order for such a story to work, however, the veneer must be plausibly attractive, the force that destroys it even more so.
“The Lemon Grove” has neither an appealing surface nor a compelling underbelly.
We know that Jenn and Greg have a mutually beneficial, if staid, relationship. But what we see of them on vacation is less than enviable. In fact, one early scene in which Jenn and Greg go out to dinner borders on farce.
Their Basque maître d’, quite possibly a cousin of Manuel from “Fawlty Towers,” plies them with broth. “My friends, my friends!” he says. “Beautiful little taste of the garden. Is, how we say . . . asperge?”
In turn, Greg addresses him in a strange patois: “Last year is crazy . . . Many storm. This? Much better.” This sort of talk fills Jenn with an inexplicable delight. “She loves the pan-European pidgin Greg adopts when they’re abroad. . . . She’s overwhelmed by the sense that this is rare; it’s unusual; it’s what holidays are for.”
Less ambiguous is the danger posed by the raw teenage sexuality that proliferates on this steamy isle — even Jenn’s beach reading is disrupted by a naked teenage boy waggling his unmentionables in her general direction.
From the first, Walsh tries very hard to make the book sensual. She tells the story in the third-person present tense from Jenn’s point of view, presumably to make it more immediate. Despite all the descriptions of the physical beauty of various characters, many of the erotic scenes don’t seem all that pleasant; for instance, Walsh often describes Jenn’s lust for Nathan in terms of physical pain.
Helen Walsh is a talented and serious writer, and “The Lemon Grove” endeavors to explore the dark temptations of forbidden lust and the disappointments of aging. Unfortunately it’s about as erotic as it is tragic, which is to say not enough.