I am always just a little suspicious of a book with a lot of hype, although I find it easy to be swept up by it too. The Lemon Grove is a book I had seen an awful lot of talk about on book blogs and Twitter, mainly very positive talk too. So therefore I was quite pleased to win a copy of the hardback from Birmingham Waterstone’s, again via Twitter. Thinking it would make a great summer, pre-holiday read I settled down with it a couple of days before I headed off to South Devon. In the end I was very glad that I hadn’t spent longer than a day on it, I should really have learned by now – I know what I like, and this kind of book isn’t it.
A novel of sun, sea, illicit sex, and unpleasant people behaving quite dreadfully, The Lemon Grove while not badly written, does not have the kind of prose which excites me and the sense of place really should have been better. However I am sure it will hit the right note for a lot of readers looking for a summer sultry read.
For years Jenn and Greg have holidayed in the same villa in Mallorca, usually during the quieter periods of the year. This year they are spending two weeks in their beloved Villa Ana on the outskirts of Deia at the height of the season. The first week they spend on their own, their special time together, relaxing, exploring the places they love, eating at their favourite restaurants. However the second week they are due to be joined by Greg’s fifteen year old daughter Emma, Jenn’s stepdaughter, and her seventeen year old boyfriend Nathan. Jenn is not particularly thrilled at the idea of Emma and Nathan crashing in on their summer retreat, but she has no idea just how the equilibrium will be shattered by their arrival.
As soon as Nathan arrives Jenn finds herself attracted to the good looking boy who her step-daughter is so smitten with. The attraction proves mutual, and the two embark on an obsessional and dangerous liaison. Nathan is an overly confident, sexually assured young man, and is quick to recognise the attraction Jenn has and capitalise on it, while Jenn’s behaviour – as the older adult and Emma’s step-mother – is totally reprehensible and for me a little unbelievable. Here we have Jenn and her apparently happy marriage (ok so we see some small cracks as the novel progresses) who has brought up her husband’s daughter since she was a very young child, suddenly deciding to jump on some cocky seventeen year old as soon as she sees him with his top off. Really? Personally I have always found seventeen year olds to be a fairly unattractive species – I didn’t much fancy seventeen year old boys even when I was seventeen finding them rather spotty and dull. Jenn’s attraction quickly becomes obsessional, her behaviour stupid and reckless. Nathan does not come across like a seventeen year old, a twenty two year old perhaps but not like any seventeen year old boy I have ever met.
This of course does throw up some interesting discussion points that I am sure book groups all over the place will enjoy grappling with. The first question is one of power, who is it that holds the power here? Jenn is the adult – and a parent of one of the teenagers concerned, she could wreck everything for Nathan with one word, and yet she doesn’t, and Nathan seems to know she won’t. Nathan is very assured as I have said, and quite predatory for one so young, but Jenn is no preyed upon innocent, far from it. Although Nathan could be seen as just a boy by many of us, it is hard to think of him in terms of a victim. It’s an interesting point that a relationship between an older woman and a teenage boy is viewed rather differently to that of an older man and a young girl. Had Jenn, been a man and Nathan a seventeen year old girl, our attitude would almost certainly have been that the teenager was the victim of an abuse of trust at the very least.
The relationship between Emma and Jenn is interesting and quite well explored by Helen Walsh, one of the key points is the names they use for one another. There are times when Jenn thinks of Emma as her daughter, and other times she thinks or refers to her as her step-daughter, while the spiky, sulky rather spoiled Emma will sometimes call Jenn Mum, at other times she calls her Jenn. Jenn remembers happier times with Emma, times when she told her stories and played a counting game with her freckles, and yet the next moment she reeling in jealously as she sees her daughter with her arms around Nathan. Walsh paints a portrait of a family where things really are not as perfect as it might at first seem. Jenn and Greg’s relationship appears solid as the novel opens – but as the reader soon sees there are cracks in their relationship, Greg having trouble at work has not confided his problems to his wife but has spoken to his fifteen year old daughter. I thought Walsh’s depiction of Jenn’s changing attitude to her husband was quite good – although maybe a little obvious and unsubtle. The novel’s viewpoint is Jenn’s and before the arrival of Nathan, her husband is always Greg, after Nathan’s arrival he is frequently Gregory, a dull, staid sound name reflecting Jenn’s sudden embarrassment in him and irritation of what she previously found endearing. Still those are all discussion points for the book groups out there, I’m afraid I got to the point where I didn’t care anymore, mainly because I didn’t completely believe it. I have no problem involving myself with unlikeable characters, in fact I often love doing just that, but this lot I just wanted to shove off a cliff. The ending – don’t worry no spoilers – was quite clever, a nice little twist, which I was rather expecting, I just hadn’t worked out what direction it would take.
Overall, for me the writing was fairly mediocre and the unbelievable nature of the story stopped me caring very much, and all those interesting questions that it raises could have been done better with greater subtlety and more class. I do see why The Lemon Grove has done so well, but it feels like a book that will divide people, and since finishing it I have found one or two other readers who didn’t like it either.