‘The sun drops low on the horizon and, with it, the distant hum of life starts up again. Families and couples weighed down with parasols and brightly patterned bags begin the trudge back up the hill road from the beach. A couple of mopeds weave in and out of the slow tide of bodies’.
The Lemon Grove, Helen Walsh, Pg.1
Helen Walsh’s fourth novel, The Lemon Grove, is a beautiful and breathless tale of suspense, seduction and betrayal. Set on the western coast of Mallorca in the tempestuous climate of Deià, forty-something Jenn and her solid, larger-than-life husband, Greg, have arrived on their annual two week getaway. As they quickly slip into holiday mode Jenn becomes increasingly aware that the dynamics of their stay are about to change drastically. Greg’s fifteen-year-old daughter, Emma, is expected to arrive during their second week abroad with her new boyfriend, Nathan, in tow.
‘There had been other boys before, but they were nothing compared to this. This was different. This was Big – the one against which all future relationships would be measured. Jenn could empathise; she’d been there herself at a similar age’.
The Lemon Grove, Helen Walsh, Pg.12
As it happens, Jenn was instrumental in persuading Greg to allow Nathan to accompany Emma to Villa Ana, the place they hire out every year without fail, though it seems that she now regrets this hasty decision – she ‘regrets grinding Greg into submission’ (pg.13). The novel opens on their final evening together before the two teenagers arrive – an evening spent luxuriating and indulging in fine food and excessive drinking. The next day Jenn wakes up, startled and disorientated, to her step-daughter looming over her half-naked body on a sun-lounger.
“Lying there … like that. It’s not what you should be doing at your age. Do you know what you look like?”
No; but she can guess. Emma thinks she looks unseemly; ropey; cheap. Emma is very near quivering with pique. Jenn can feel it coming. She focuses on her book on the ground; calmly picks it up. Turns it over as though considering it for the first time. But, when it comes it is worse, it is much worse than any of those jibes.
“You look common. Really, really common”.
The Lemon Grove, Helen Walsh, Pg.29
Thankfully, though, Nathan doesn’t witness Jenn with her breasts on display – or so she thinks. What follows is a stormy, tension-filled, suspense-ridden whirlwind of events that sees Jenn’s world crumble down like the landscape around her. Seduced by Nathan’s youth and the possibility that a seventeen-year-old could find her mature figure remotely attractive compared to the ‘devastating’ appearance of Emma in ‘an electric blue bikini’, Jenn increasingly blurs the line between desire and obsession. Filled with rage at her own ageing body whilst witnessing her step-daughter blossom, an unfortunate series of events ensue fuelled by Jenn’s deep-set insecurities and desperation to be young and desirable again.
Although I devoured The Lemon Grove in a day, I felt like it was so much more than just a seductive summer read. Helen Walsh deliberately gives agency to an older woman, highlighting the fact that she not only wants to be desired but has desires too. As Walsh stated in an interview:
‘We live in a culture that over-glorifies youth, that sees it as synonymous with desirability and beauty. To many, the idea of a 17 year old boy desiring a 45 year old woman is repugnant – and improbable. Culturally, we are not comfortable with the idea that a woman’s sexuality can be as urgent and driven as a man’s. My fiction tends to flip those received notions about gender and sexuality on their head’.
I admire Walsh for this and, although I am still only young myself, I am old enough to realise just how sexualised and desirable youth has become. People are constantly force-fed images of young, beautiful girls/women either in magazines, TV or adverts – a striking, and most obvious, example of ‘over-glorifying youth’ (or ageism) is when older women on TV are discarded for younger, more ‘desirable’ women to judge or present shows, yet there is no age-limit or ‘best-before’ date for men. After reading Laura Bates’ devastating Everyday Sexism book (which I will review soon) this problem is widespread. Not only are there just 18 per cent of female television presenters over the age of fifty on TV (according to a 2013 Labour Party study), but women over a certain age increasingly feel ‘invisible’ in a society that places youth and beauty as synonymous with femininity. It is no wonder, then, that it seems ‘improbable’ that an attractive young boy/man would choose to desire a woman over twenty years his senior when he already has an attractive and youthful girl on his arm. I doubt this would be the same if the roles were reversed. I also admire how Walsh portrays Jenn as a passionate woman whose fuelled by desire just as much as Nathan is. She is not simply seduced into sleeping with him but actively pursues her desire despite knowing how morally wrong it is on many levels.
Whilst challenging preconceived notions of gender and sexuality and testing ‘the reader’s moral conscious’ (as Walsh puts it) The Lemon Grove still remains a perfect sultry summer read that will leave you feeling stifled with suspense right up to the very last page. I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed this book.
Thanks to Tinder Press for the review copy.