I love Twitter. I use it as a source of news, interesting articles and, most of all, a place to talk about books. I’ve discovered lots of books and writers through it who I might not otherwise have ever come across. However, the downside of spending what’s probably too much time on the site is that a feed filled with bookish people – a significant number of whom work for publishing houses – sometimes means a feed filled with tweets about the same book.
I’ve been hearing about The Lemon Grove since long before Christmas. It’s been touted as a steamy, explicit love story in which a middle-aged woman has an affair with her stepdaughter’s teenage boyfriend. Considering I’ve read Alissa Nutting’s Tampa and thought it very good, this shouldn’t have been off-putting but somehow, the combination of seemingly endless tweets and the core of the story just weren’t doing it for me.
However, I’d looked up Helen Walsh and discovered this wasn’t her first novel – it’s her fourth – and that her previous books looked gritty and northern, two things I love in literature, and then people whose opinions I trust were talking about how good The Lemon Grove is. I relented and requested a copy from NetGalley. Am I glad I did! Yes, The Lemon Grove is the story of a middle-aged woman’s affair with her stepdaughter’s teenage boyfriend but it’s also so much more than that.
Jenn and her husband Greg are on holiday in Deià, Mallorca, staying in Villa Ana, the same villa they hire every year. It’s the last night before Greg’s teenage daughter, Emma and her boyfriend, Nathan, join them. We’re told that Jenn has been instrumental in convincing Greg to let Nathan come with them.
‘Dad’s living in the dark ages. You saw him, Mum! Boys like him don’t hang around waiting for you. He’s bound to meet someone while I’m away.’
Oh, the irony. And there’s trouble from the very moment Nathan and Emma arrive. Jenn, topping up her tan and trying to avoid straplines, has been sunbathing topless by the pool, where’s she’s fallen asleep. She doesn’t think Nathan’s seen her but Emma is outraged regardless:
‘Lying there…like that. It’s not what you should be doing at your age. Do you know what you look like?’
No, but she can guess. Emma thinks she looks unseemly; ropey; cheap.
Contrast Jenn with Nathan and Emma once they’re changed and ready for the beach:
He is wearing a pair of plain blue swimming shorts, otherwise he is naked before her. He is muscular but graceful with it, balletic. He is shockingly pretty. She is aware of the seeming impropriety of registering these details – he is seventeen – and yet she cannot tear her eyes away.
She breezes into the kitchen, devastating in an electric blue bikini…A gold chain belts her slim waist; a dazzling fake sapphire studs her naval…[Jenn feels] a sense of awe at her daughter’s womanly figure. Where did those legs come from? And those breasts?
And we begin to get a sense of what Jenn’s issue might really be: her youth is behind her, old age lies in front. What does she have to show for it? To live – really live – for?
Jenn’s always been what her dad described as ‘a grafter’. After meeting Greg, she got herself a college education and ended up managing a care home. She also became a mother to Emma, who was just a baby when her biological mother died. Now Emma’s almost an adult, Greg’s job as Head of English at a university is uncertain following the appointment of a new dean and Jenn’s realising what’s she’s sacrificed.
They once harboured dreams of buying a house on the hill. Nothing as spectacular as the casa grande – but something. Over time, there was a gradual narrowing of aspiration and, for a while, that realisation embittered her. Not just the rude unveiling of the vanity of her dreams – their dreams – but also because Greg had allowed her to believe that anything was possible. She knows better, now. She knows they’ll be no fantasy home in Mallorca. She knows they’ll be no baby of their own. She knows all this yet there is still a part of her, not willing, yet – not ready to accept it.
The Lemon Grove is about a middle-aged woman taking stock of her life and finding it wanting. The holiday Jenn and Greg are on is supposed to be about them – and Emma – having a break, exploring, finding new things to do on an island which they’ve visited many times. But the appearance of Nathan shakes that up. He shakes Emma and, even more so, Jenn. Jenn who desires Nathan’s youth and beauty more than she desires Nathan himself, indeed, she barely knows him.
The tension while leading up to the first time Jenn and Nathan have sex is as stifling as the August heat – is he coming on to her or is she imaging it? After that you’ll spend the rest of the book still tense, wondering – along with Jenn – whether or not they’re going to be caught. I was so gripped, I read it in one sitting and – without any spoilers – I can tell you that the ending is just delicious. A brilliant book.
Thanks to Tinder Press for the review copy.