Cougar Curiosities

The Lemon Grove - Helen Walsh
She likes the sense of being here, yet being invisible.

Just as a heads up, this book is about four shitty people having a grand vacation in Mallorca, Spain where they go through the motions of living a charmed life desperately concealing the realities of deceit and discontent. So there’s a lot of green-eyed envy on my part as a reader as I watch these undeserving liars and thieves enjoy sun-soaked lunches sipping wine, island hiking and breakfast ensaimadas for a great part of the novel. There’s of course, a certain degree of smug schadenfreude that come along with discovering the defective nuts and bolts in each character, but Deia and the holiday idyll was so vivid and pervasive, it’s hard not to be embittered that you’re not there while reading this.

So unless you’re reading this from any Mediterranean coast, it’s probably going to suck at some degree.

But everywhere else, I thought it worked brilliantly. I was expecting smart taboo and it delivered that and more.

Jenn, her husband Greg and his fifteen-year old daughter Emma traditionally spends their summer in a rented Villa in Deia. Except this year, Emma decides to bring along her boyfriend, Nathan. The book spans a week of their vacation, frolicking in beaches, bars, mountain trails and caves gradually exposing each character, that by the end of the book they are not quite the people you know from their take-off points: Jenn as the loving stepmom now struggling with her relationship with Emma as she comes to terms with her age and frustrations;Greg the elitist university professor seemingly absorbed in his own academic world to recognize the tension between his wife and daughter; Emma the impressionable and bratty teenager enthralled by the idealism of adolescence; and Nathanseventeen and a hipstery music blogger.

They really are such a horrid group of people, their complexities gradually revealed layer by layer while the story operates at every turn with what has been revealed about them thus far. I want to namedrop Gillian Flynn but probably with less crazy-eyes and more calculated brilliance. Which is so much harder to pull off since the story in itself had a lot of pitfalls for gratuity that this managed to avoid with grace and aplomb. Because hello, cougar stepmom and the boyfriend. On vacation.

True it doesn’t bring anything new to the table in terms of a heroine on that pit-stop in her life where frustrations shift, in the physical and everywhere else, meets a younger man, engaging in a beyond forbidden affair. And it did feel a little bom-chika-wow-wow porny in the beginning with the she gets caught sunbathing topless by Nate on the veranda, oopsie!. But Jenn’s contemplations of what she’s missed and what she’s currently missing was spot on heart-felt in her sadness and regret.

If only someone older and wiser had told her. Told her that, after a certain point in a woman’s life, her past becomes open to reevaluation. Once her flesh grows soft, once she gets married and has kids, once her allure dims, once that woman ceases to be a proposition, nobody cares what you were anyway. Nobody remembers.

And it is quite naive to expect a May/December romance between her and Nathan in the tradition of Jane Harvey-Berrick. There’s actually very little assertion on the taboo nature of their relationship. If anything, every time Jenn has some flares of jealousy over Nate and Emma, I am left to wonder if it’s losing a non-competition with her younger stepdaughter or if it’s losing her stepdaughter to adulthood that is speaking for her. Because the dynamic between Emma and Jenn was equally fascinating with that of Nate and Jenn. I love the quick snapshots of their pasts as a family, the sentimental nostalgia kept in check but not lacking either. It was a short novel that could’ve easily been stretched longer, with the tedium of graphic sex and soap-ish drama but instead chose to be precise and methodical in creative storytelling.

There was some involvement of soap and sex but the drama and the graphic was held in check, thankfully.

I loved how things progressed but loved how this ended most. Just when you thought your safe from the tricks and the tension, this book pulls that brilliant card from out of nowhere.

Definitely something worth checking out, be it for one’s cougaring curiosities or exploring the ”vicissitudes of marriage and the politics of other people's children” Helen Walsh delivers on her promises and so much more.

ARC courtesy of RH-Doubleday thru Netgalley. Quotes taken from an uncorrected proof.