The Lemon Grove by Helen Walsh is not a romance but could be classified as literary fiction or women’s fiction. It is succinct and emotionally powerful at only 166 pages and takes place in the third-person viewpoint of Jenn, the fortyish wife of Greg, an older and slightly pompous professor of English literature. They are a well-to-do couple because Jenn also makes good money managing a nursing home, but they still butt heads over Greg’s insistence on giving his headstrong fifteen-year-old daughter Emma the best of everything that their combined money can buy, including a hideously expensive private school education. Emma is Greg’s daughter from a previous marriage and is a good kid with an unconscious tendency to swan through life, expecting adulation for her youth and beauty. However, she isn’t above trying to manipulate most situations to ensure that she remains the center of attention.
Jenn, who worked her way up for a modest background, increasingly resents having to fund Emma’s private school tuition and the tension has been growing between stepmother and daughter because Emma senses this.
Jenn is somewhat jaded and self-absorbed – just feeling the first touches of insecurity about her fading beauty and diminishing sexual appeal. But at heart she loves her husband and stepdaughter. You get the feeling that Jenn has been so busy working and living her day-to-day life that she has lost touch with the bigger picture of her destiny. Now she is caught flatfooted, wondering how she has arrived at this stage of her life with a husband she may have settled for while never having experienced a grand passion with him. And she’s never had her own child. How does she feel about that? She’s never had time to think about it before.
Every summer the family manages to break away from their high-powered lives to spend a few summer weeks on the Spanish island of Majorca where they rent a villa from a sly local man. This family tradition has deep emotional significance for them. But this year, after having spent one week at the villa alone together – feeling like young lovers once again – Jenn and Greg are about to welcome Emma and her startlingly pretty new boyfriend Nathan into the villa for the second week. This will upset their sense of themselves as an attractive couple and introduce an unsettling new power dynamic into the situation as Emma and Nathan become the gloriously youthful immortals, preening in their skimpy swimwear and unwilling to hang out with the “oldies.” And yet Nathan shows a secret interest in Jenn, and Jenn is shocked by her own intense attraction to him.
I found The Lemon Grove to be an intense read, beautifully written, and rich with emotional suspense. It’s not a romance, but more like literary fiction. The luscious descriptions of Majorca are woven into the fast-paced narrative like bursts of tropical flavor, adding three-dimensional vividness while never slowing down the sense of impending disaster. I really felt for Jenn whose selfish, destructive choices seemed to have understandable motives. In Majorca, removed from every day England, she is blindsided by a sudden midlife glimpse of the course of her entire life after having spent her youth working too hard to see where she was going. And I felt even more sorry for poor little Emma, as exasperating as she could be. Nathan, what was he? A cypher? A psychopath? His opacity fit the story. And the last page gave me a total chill.
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