[Caution: portions of this review must of necessity get into aspects of the plot – but does not give away the ending. Still and all, if you plan to read the novel, let me simply note that it is well worth your time. And then, after you have read it, come back and read my take on it.]
Ecco – HarperCollins Publishers
New York (2010)
This short, astute and gracefully written novel deals with a woman’s descent and ascent, loss and recovery, death and resurrection of herself. Yvonne, the fiftyish widow, has decided that she cannot go on grieving forever, and some two years after her husband, Peter, was killed in a traffic accident, she wants to revisit the town in Turkey where they had gone on their honeymoon “… to regain something of what she had had with Peter decades earlier … .” [page 211]
The central conceit of the story is the journey (and journeys within journeys), a familiar and malleable trope of great antiquity. Ms. Vida brings it off believably and sympathetically. Indeed, many of the sequences that are strung together, jumping in time from her youth to the present, about Peter, her troubled daughter, her own awakening desires, ring sympathetically true to me – and I say this as someone who lost my own spouse about as long ago as the protagonist, Yvonne, of The Lovers lost hers. Yvonne’s map of the trajectory of grieving for a lost spouse is more than credible: in my view it rings affectingly true. And, surprisingly for me, I did draw some emotional sustenance from her tale. As Yvonne says late in the story (page 223) with reference to the unspeakable pain of such sudden loss of a spouse,
“You just need to wait for the days to go by … . It might be hundreds of days, a thousand, but one day, you find that the pain has dulled. That it no longer clouds everything you see.”
In the course of the book Yvonne reveals, bit by bit, talking and listening inadvertently to others as well as to herself, aspects not entirely flattering to her or the marriage with Peter that apparently had seemed so perfect to others (consider especially page 219, where, once more privately prompted by an aged couple’s interaction that she witnesses, she pours forth all the resentments and frustrations built up in the course of her long marriage to Peter).
Perhaps the most poignant of these is the account of how she met Peter under circumstances somewhat underhanded on her part, involving postcards not meant for her at all that she comes across at a poste restante in Florence, and, based on information so gained, a ‘spying’ mission at the Grotta del Buontalenti in that city’s Boboli Gardens.
Characters stand in for each other, comment on each other, in a sense ‘talk’ to and ‘address’ each other – a common enough literary techniques and one deftly engineered in Ms. Vida’s deployment of them. Thus, the younger woman, Özlem, who is the wife of the man from whom she is renting the house in Turkey, has her own marital problems. She and Yvonne quickly become close enough to share very private information with each other about their lives, and parallels emerge between Özlem’s marriage (apparently hanging by a thread) and Yvonne’s (its thread irrevocably cut). Yvonne develops a kind of harsh analogous thinking [page 115] about Özlem herself and her own much troubled daughter, Aurelia, roughly Özlem’s age. “Aurelia and Özlem, though different, shared a narcissism common to women in their twenties.” And, later [page 201], “She knew a thousand pathetic details about her daughter, and sill wouldn’t be able to describe her accurately to a stranger.” Similarly she draws (more benign) inferences about her (and Peter’s fair-haired) son in comparisons with the young (“… a boy of nine or ten …” [page 150]) Ahmet, a seller of sea-shells, with whom she develops an aching relationship although – no doubt significantly — neither speaks or really understands the other’s language.
Similar if more abbreviated displacements involve later encounters on a secondary journey (see penultimate paragraph below) into Cappadocia (clearly a ‘katabatic’ landscape [cf.elsewhere my discussion of this important theme]). Here it is Mustafa and Aylin – the latter is Ahmet’s older sister, “… who smelled like Yvonne’s daughter: a simple scent, like dried flowers …”, and the former is her ‘guide’ into this remote land, the taxi-driver Mustafa, a kind of protector some of whose characteristics remind her of Peter.
Even the ‘owl’ episode (a wild owl has taken up refuge in the house Yvonne is renting) has relevance in this connection. Özlem has informed Yvonne that owls “never leave their spouse …” [page 112], and on the next page, with an expression “… Yvonne had seen … on Aurelia’s face too…”, Özlem explains that owls, unlike her, are monogamous: “And so I think what happened here is that the owl in your house came back looking for the owl that died – the mate.” Perhaps, the reader muses, not unlike what Yvonne is doing in ‘coming back’ to where she and Peter all those years ago had had their honeymoon, looking somehow to recapture her (their) past – cf. the citation in the opening paragraph above.
And what is one to make of the incident in which her white rental car gets covered in blackening tar – and the cleaning away of it with Özlem’s help?
In that connection, there is Yvonne’s aching loneliness, even two years on; the unsatisfactory stabs at dating; and, when she sees, or is in the company of, couples (both those who are old ‘friends’ and those who are complete strangers) who still have each other, the anguished reminders of the now gone life she and Peter had – reminders that on occasion merge into a kind of envy of the togetherness of others and the castigation of her own singleness.
Towards the conclusion of the novel Yvonne sets out on a smaller journey (to Cappadocia) within this larger journey (to Turkey). I read this ‘quest’ as an attempt on her part to expiate guilt not so much for the ostensible purpose of apologizing to his family for the death of young Ahmet for which she has assumed a more than unreasonable responsibility, but rather for her perceived failings with her dead husband and, especially, her daughter, Aurelia. (There is a strong sub-theme in this work of the not uncommon mapping in modern film and the contemporary novel of the Demeter-Persephone myth — the mother’s restless searching for the daughter – the daughter ‘lost’ in an infinitely many displaced configurations. But that is another blog!)
The ending – well, it would be impolite and unkind for me to say more than that it is quite unexpected and quite, quite satisfying.