The Lovers – Vendela Vida

From the book description:

“Yvonne, recently widowed and the mother of adult twins, returns to the coastal village in Turkey where she and her husband honeymooned twenty-eight years ago. She hopes to immerse herself in the sand and sea, and in memories of a better time. But complications ensue. Her landlord and his wife have a curious marital agreement and are constant visitors to the home. And instead of being comforted by her memories, Yvonne finds they begin to trouble her. Overwhelmed by her past and her environment, Yvonne clings to her newfound friendship with Ahmet, a young boy who works at the beach. With him as her guide, Yvonne gains new insight into her own children and begins to enjoy the relaxed pace of the Turkish coast. But then a terrible accident throws her life into chaos and her sense of self into turmoil.

With the crystalline voice, mordant humour and depth of feeling for which her work has been so celebrated, Vendela Vida has crafted another unforgettable heroine in a beautiful and mysterious landscape.”

Early in The Lovers, Yvonne, a middle-aged American vacationing in Turkey, finds a book on the shelf of her rental house called The Woman’s Guide to Anal Sex. She flips through it, then moves on to discover some homemade pornography under the couch and an odd device in the guest room that turns out to be a sex swing. Instead of embarrassment or excitement or surprise (or horror or nostalgia or curiosity), she feels little in response to these erotic items strewn about her thousand-dollar-a-week accommodations. Since many middle-class women from New England traveling alone for the first time in 30 years wouldn’t be so unflappable, Yvonne’s story can be seen from the start as an unusual and engrossing exploration.

There is certain risk in casting fiction in a single, narrative voice. If it works, the character carries the day. In her third novel, Vendela Vida pulls off the feat, casting The Lovers entirely in the voice of Yvonne: teacher and widow. The Lovers begins with Yvonne’s arrival in Datça, Turkey, where she and her husband, Peter, had honeymooned 28 years ago. A couple of years have passed since Peter’s untimely death and Yvonne has made this trip in an attempt to both assuage her grief and immerse herself in memories of happier times.

Vida, who earned praise with her previous novel, Let the Northern Lights Erase Her Name, has an eye for understated details:

• “The problem with being a history teacher was that everyone assumed your interest in the past was undying. Every birthday gift was an antique.”

• “Her voice was suddenly unpleasant, the consonants of her words scraping against each other like a zipper.”

• “She observed that the rocking of the boat wasn’t side to side, like a cradle. It was more like a clock laid flat, tilting toward three, six, nine and twelve before starting the cycle all over again.”

Vida deftly weaves the power of description into the broader tapestry of Yvonne’s journey as the wife of a fellow teacher and mother of fraternal twins, one of whom waged an epic and often losing battle with drugs and alcohol. The daughter, Aurelia, joins a cast of particularly strong supporting characters, each contributing to Yvonne’s rediscovery along the Turkish coast.

One character shines above the others: Ahmet, a playful, industrious Turkish 10-year-old. Overwhelmed by the past and unexpectedly dislocated by the environment, Yvonne clings to this newfound friendship with Ahmet. “She had traveled to Turkey to regain something of what she had with Peter decades earlier — and failing that, she had befriended the boy“, Vida writes. For both parties it is a poignant friendship, ripe with meaning. And its outcome defines Yvonne, past, present and future.

The Lovers, slim and transportive, is an invitation to join Yvonne on her journey. Vida is a subtle writer whose voice is spare and authoritative, and her third novel is further evidence that she can fashion characters as unpredictable as they are endearing. Although its ending is a little rushed (some situations feel arbitrarily abandoned), the book is a satisfying, often brilliant portrait of a woman searching for relief from things that will not, she discovers at last with something like acceptance, go away.

The Lovers is the third novel in a loosely-linked trilogy about women in moments of crisis, but Vida has done something different and stronger with each one. A novelist who takes nothing for granted about the form, seemingly rediscovering it each time, she makes much out of little and the effect lingers long after the last page is read.

Perfection by Julie Metz

From the book description:

Julie Metz had seemingly the perfect life—an adoring husband, a happy, spirited daughter, a lovely old house in a quaint suburban town—but it was all a lie. Julie Metz’s life changed forever on one ordinary January afternoon when her husband, Henry, collapsed on the kitchen floor and died in her arms. Suddenly, this mother of a six-year-old became the young widow in her bucolic small town. But that was only the beginning. Seven months after Henry’s death, just when Julie thought she was emerging from the worst of it, came the rest of it: She discovered that what had appeared to be the reality of her marriage was but a half-truth. Henry had hidden another life from her. Perfection is the story of Metz’s journey through chaos and transformation as she creates a different life for herself and for her young daughter. It is the story of rebuilding both a life and an identity after betrayal and widowhood, of rebirth and happiness—if not perfection.

Julie Metz is a New York-born writer, graphic designer, and artist. In addition to Perfection she has written essays and commentary for The New York Times and The Huffington Post. She has also designed book covers for the novels: The Poisonwood Bible, by Barbara Kingsolver, The Gathering, by Anne Enright and Boom! Aftershocks of the Sixties by Tom Brokaw. Metz’s husband, referred to as Henry in the book, died at home from a pulmonary embolism on January 8, 2003. Perfection is the resultant effort from Metz’s time absorbing the shock of Henry’s death and then working through the rage of his discovered betrayals and mostly covers the three years following Henry’s death.

In an interesting precursor to the book, a note to readers is included:

“I have changed the names (except my own), and other details of persons in this book. I have not changed the name of a certain dog, which suited the animal and my story perfectly. Sometimes real life surprises fiction even in the details. I have, on a few occasions, changed the order of events, where those changes benefit narrative flow without altering a factual telling of the story. Otherwise, all dialogue and events took place as I remember and recount them in these pages.”

I can only attribute this to the James Frey fall-out.

Having said that, nothing about Metz’s account comes across as questionable or improbable. Her story, though,is very probably any partnered person’s worst nightmare realized. Imagine the sudden and unexpected death of your spouse, in your kitchen, felled by a fatal pulmonary embolism. Now imagine, six months later, discovering the person you trusted absolutely was not, at all, who you thought. Is it worse to be bereaved or betrayed? Often, as an attempt at comfort, those grieving are reminded that their loved one will live on in their memories but if those memories are compromised, does the deceased still manage an existence in our world and our minds?

Julie Metz, through a revelation from a close friend, comes to know her husband had been not just unfaithful, but a serial philanderer (who was also hiding secret debts) throughout their thirteen year marriage. Using her own journal entries, along with Henry’s electronic diaries and emails, Metz created Perfection. She has been noted as “brave”, “shocking” and “candid” in other reviews of her book but none of Metz’s tale strikes me as shocking nor do her actions smack of bravery. Metz just did did what she needed to emerge on the other side.

While Henry is lying, dead on their kitchen floor, Metz is cognizant of her “last normal moment”. Metz rages at her husband now beyond her physical reach: “Henry, you are so fucking lucky to be dead.”, calling him “…a piece of shit bastard”; her grieving shoved aside to rail against Henry’s betrayal. Metz manages to identify and contact six of Henry’s mistresses, challenging them on how they were able to participate in a relationship with a married father. Through these interactions Metz comes to gain a more complete picture of the man who was her husband. Through executor privilege, Metz arranges a meeting with Henry’s therapist who offers Henry’s diagnosis of ‘narcissistic personality disorder’ with an amazing ability to compartmentalize, not as an excuse but, perhaps as a peg to hang things on in an attempt at coming to understand her husband’s actions.

Metz definitely does a compelling job sharing her loves, her losses and the lies she must deal with, while offering a cautionary tale about the idea of perfection within a marriage.