“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…”
Each summer, Jenn and her husband Greg return to Deià, on Mallorca’s dramatic west coast. This year the arrival of Emma, Jenn’s stepdaughter, and her new boyfriend Nathan threatens to upset their equilibrium. Beautiful and reckless, Nathan stirs something unexpected in Jenn. As she is increasingly seduced by Nathan’s youth and the promise of passion, the line between desire and obsession begins to blur.
I love a thrilling read. I love knowing a book is going to present me with an impossible, frightening situation and place me slap-bang in the middle of characters in sheer turmoil.
This is what attracted me to Helen Walsh’s latest book release, The Lemon Grove. First of all, the cover of the book screams sensuality. Read the blurb, flip to the front cover and you’ll feel the tension instantly. A shapely woman swims, gliding through a gorgeous, blue pool, while a more youthful, colder girl looks on. The distance between them is contradictory; both are near yet far apart from one another. The cover is almost too beautiful to discard. As a reader, you know something will ruin this image, but also, that it’s already in ruins.
The novel is centred around a holiday in Deià, Mallorca. According to Walsh, it’s “a love letter to the West coast of Mallorca and its slowly evolving face”, and a love letter is exactly what you get. The location is perhaps the most important facet of the novel. You never feel too far away from the coastline. The waves of the sea, the rocky stones, the smooth yet uneven pebbles, the hidden caves and pathways in and around the coastal areas are described exquisitely and constantly appear to engulf the characters. I found myself understanding Jenn’s constant need to immerse herself in the water – Walsh paints a simply stunning picture of Deià.
Jenn appears as a fairly rational woman at the beginning of the novel. Seemingly in a happy or at least satisfied relationship with Greg, her husband, there doesn’t seem to be any hints of underlying marital tension between the two. We do see her resist Greg’s attempts at encouraging sex and this suggest there is trouble in paradise, however, Walsh doesn’t give enough information away – none that so explicitly predicts Jenn’s later indiscretions with Nathan anyway.
The introduction and arrival of 15-year-old Emma in Deià suggests a shift in Jenn and Greg’s relationship – Greg is her biological father, while Jenn is her step-mother. Emma is moody, blunt and constantly changing her tune. She becomes the first character that threatens the solace of the holiday Jenn and Greg are undertaking, especially as she brings the sultry, stimulating 17-year-old Nathan to the holiday with her.
Jenn has an interesting character. She is self-restraining, self-aware and maternal. At the same time, she fails to restrain, fails to be aware, and fails in her maternal devotion to Emma. Her overriding sexual desire for Nathan engulfs her – the sexual beast is awakened, and Walsh eroticizes the passages and words used to describe Jenn’s feelings for Nathan. It is sheer lust and carnality. We become a part of her sexual reinvigoration, and Walsh must be applauded for presenting Jenn as such a conflicted yet daring character. The sexuality in the novel simmers, spills over, then bottles itself up. Walsh does not let her readers linger. We gain flashbacks, fast-paced sentences divulging both as little and as much as possible. There is no room for Fifty Shades of Grey style banal, empty sexual encounters.
However, Walsh digs deeper with Jenn, using her character to highlight family relationships under pressure. Jenn’s relationship with Emma appears fragile throughout The Lemon Grove. Jenn teeters around her, secretly loathing her step-daughter’s behaviour and eventually becoming envious of her – especially in relation to Nathan. The novel is not just one about illicit sexual desire, but about the complexities of Jenn mothering a girl who isn’t her own flesh and blood and watching her blossom into womanhood while she herself descends into middle-age. Because of this, perhaps more important that Jenn’s sexual encounters with Nathan is the relationship between her and Emma.
Nathan adds sexual tension. Whether he lends more to the novel is something for readers to decide. Personally, I feel he was a mere plot device, used to address female sexuality and explore mother-daughter relationships. He seamlessly enters the novel and seamlessly leaves. We need no back-story, we just need him.
The ending was disappointing. I wanted more to go wrong. I wanted Jenn to lose control, and I wanted the family to be torn apart forever. Walsh created a tragedy and left me unfulfilled.
Finally, we must address the lemons. They make important appearances throughout the novel. My favourite image appears towards the end, when Walsh sums up Jenn’s character in one sentence:
“Scattered around her [Jenn’s] head are dozens of lemons, gone to seed”.
Make of this sentence what you will, but I instantly thought of Jenn’s deterioration into a liar and adulterer. Throughout the novel, the lemons reminded me of vibrancy, and of bursting. Cutting a lemon, seeing the juice shooting into the air in small, miniscule bursts and smelling the zingy taste that follows after. It also reminded me of eating or licking a lemon, then tasting the unwanted sourness it brings to your mouth, but oddly, wanting to taste it again. The lemons are a reminder of the decisions we make, and the bitterness that can arise from an otherwise beautiful-looking fruit. Who needs the forbidden fruit of the apple? The lemon grove in the novel is just as desirable, just as bitter and just as dangerous.
The Lemon Grove keeps you on the edge. With Jenn, we become sexual voyeurs too. The novel entices, and just as quickly leaves you pining for more. It is intense and an easy, gripping read.