Monday, January 28, 2013

One two three, one two three

In my tentative attempts to move more boldly into the world of books for grownups, I decided to start with the brand new award from librarians, the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction, and read Anne Enright's The Forgotten Waltz. (And now I sit here trying to figure out what to say.) I believe it to be a very successful work of fiction -- encompassing all the things readers think about when they think about books:  vivid setting, complex and interesting (but not particularly nice) characters deftly drawn, a central conflict in need of resolution, a compelling story. Well, maybe not that last one.

Gina Moynihan first meets Sean Vallely -- who is a little bit older than her and is the father of a pre-teen girl who seems just a little bit off -- at a party at her sister Fiona's house in Dublin. It's the early-2000s and Ireland is booming (the Celtic Tiger). Both are married, and both are ambitious. Gina brings Sean on as a consultant in her workplace and a couple of years later, they embark on an affair while on a business trip together in Dubrovnik (the city might be wrong). It's a heady affair, one where Sean texts Gina the name and room number of a swanky hotel and they meet in the afternoon for a bout of sex. For additional titillation, they frequently encounter each other in the company of their somewhat dim spouses.

In 2008, the fairytale romance comes crashing down. The economy tanks, leaving Gina with an underwater mortgage.  She loses her high-paying job and Sean's consultancy isn't as successful as it once was. The lovers are found out, but even then Sean is reluctant to leave his family. Gina's mother dies, leaving her with a rundown home that can't be sold for any price. Without any place to live after she leaves her husband Gina moves into her childhood home. When Sean's wife finally tosses him out, he joins her.  After a very amusing misunderstanding, when Sean -- looking for a freshly laundered shirt -- asks Gina if the iron is on the fritz, they settle into an uneasy domesticity that kind of snuffs out their romance.  Exacerbating the situation are weekend visits of the now teenaged Evie.  The waltz of passion seems to have ended, soon to be forgotten. (My take on the metaphor, although the author never uses the term in her novel; if she did I missed it.)

Enright's writing was justly cited by the Carnegie Medal committee, "sharp yet subtle prose." Gina is a prickly narrator not afraid to cruelly dish on the failures of those who surround her.  She can judge herself pretty harshly as well and she's hard on Sean, too. There's no accounting for the romantic relationships of others, but these two pretty much deserve each other. Oddly, at the end, I felt that another romance might be brewing: Gina and Evie (not in an icky sense). It was extremely satisfying to see how Evie was managing to worm her way through Gina's defensive sarcasm.

But really, I didn't like this much. While the author's skills are considerable, I just couldn't be interested in the world and people she created.  Gina and Sean's affair is not a timeless match of literature, they actually don't seem to like each other very much. The events and characters that revolve around them -- while affording me interesting glimpses into a culture I don't know much about -- didn't really move me. I'm not sure I would have made it reading on my own.

Heather O'Neill (a narrator I heard years ago and enjoyed so very much reading Julie Hearn's The Minister's Daughter) helped me get through this novel. She portrays Gina with all her cruelties and insecurities intact, investing her character with a rapid-fire, caustic delivery that probably contributed to my dislike of her.  Her Irish accent is consistent (and delightful to listen to), and she creates interesting vocal personalities for many of the characters. The way the Irish swear is endlessly entertaining, and the disbelief in Sean's voice over the fact that Gina has not ironed his shirts (like the dutiful wife she is not) was deeply enjoyable.  I would listen to her again.

Enright, though, I'm not so sure. After all these years at the grindstone of books for young people, the world of adult prize-winning fiction still intimidates me. My experience with the Booker Prize or the National Book Award is extremely limited. And I'm not sure I've gotten off to a very good start. Oh well, there's always next year.

[This cartoon image of the Celtic Tiger was created by CGorman and retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

The Forgotten Waltz by Anne Enright
Narrated by Heather O'Neill
Recorded Books, 2011.  7:15

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