On the surface, The Lemon Grove is about Jenn, a woman in her 40s who enters into an affair with a much younger man -- her stepdaughter's boyfriend -- while on holiday with her husband. But while the subject matter may be titillating, the real story lies in the family's twisted dynamics.
This is British writer Helen Walsh's fourth novel, and she's clearly not one to shy away from controversy. In 2004, she published Brass, about a promising college student caught up in the drugs and sexual hedonism of street culture. Her second novel, Once Upon a Time in England (2008), deals with the horror of racism, while most recently, Walsh explored the sometimes shocking reality of postnatal depression in Go to Sleep (2011).
It may be true today that more and more women of a certain age are involved with much younger men. But while Walsh's version is not impossible, neither is it completely believable, at times edging painfully close to frothy, movie-of-the week territory.
The Lemon Grove begins in the middle of Jenn and her husband Greg's idyllic holiday in Deia, Spain, cut short by the arrival of Greg's teenage daughter -- and Jenn's stepdaughter -- Emma, with her boyfriend, Nathan, in tow. Emma is quick to put Jenn in her place, chastising her for sunbathing topless by the pool: "It's not what you should be doing at your age."
Jenn is irked at having her vacation with her husband derailed, and by having to adjust to Emma's "weather-vane of moods."
What's more inconvenient is Jenn's instant attraction to Nathan, even as she registers the impropriety of it. But before anything has happened, she's already making excuses: "This was no boy, was it? He is 17 -- but he's a man."
Although exasperated when Nathan first makes advances at her, seeing him with Emma sparks in Jenn a sense of betrayal that shocks her. The presence of the beautiful young lovers serves as a constant reminder to Jenn of her own advancing age, not least when Emma refers to Jenn and Greg as "oldies" in front of Nathan.
Walsh's lemon grove is a clumsy metaphor for Jenn's predicament. Though once juicy and fragrant, before long the lemons drop to the ground and moulder. Is Jenn herself past her prime and ready for the rubbish heap?
As things heat up between Nathan and Jenn over the ensuing week, the thrill of being desired by a younger man proves too powerful a drug to resist. The attraction is certainly possible, but would a mother really embark on an affair under the same roof as her husband and his daughter?
By turns exhilarated and guilt-ridden, Jenn unsurprisingly begins to see Greg in an unflattering new light. Compared with Nathan's muscled arms and six-pack, Greg's body now seems "slack" and "weathered."
As she strolls the streets alone, Jenn is in awe of the local women, who despite their "sunbeaten faces" and "fleshy arms" seem "happy in their skin and age." But her deep discomfort lies more in her inability to connect with her stepdaughter, who once called her "Mum," but only ever calls her that these days when she wants something. Her frustration with Emma only drives her further in to Nathan's arms.
Tension between Jenn and Emma continues to escalate, and when Jenn catches Nathan in a compromising situation, she vows to send him packing. Things come to a head when Emma disappears after a heated argument with Jenn, leaving her to realize where her loyalty -- and love -- truly reside.
Despite an unexpected twist at the end, The Lemon Grove offers little excitement -- discounting, of course, the lovers' steamy, clandestine trysts. For readers looking for an escape from their everyday lives, The Lemon Grove should serve as well as any.
Lindsay McKnight works in the arts in Winnipeg.