ON THE tasteful pink and gray cover of Rose Tremain’s new story collection, The American Lover, a beautiful slender woman with a blond pageboy poses in the style of a 1950s tearoom model wearing a shirtwaist frock and ballerina flats. In white-gloved hands she clutches a bouquet of red daisies. Oh boy, I thought: a book about beautiful Brits and their love affairs. Surely there would be the odd lunch at Harrods, a country house, maybe even jazz and cocktails.
And these intensely readable stories do serve up all of the above, sans jazz. But the satisfactions of The American Lover take place under the skin. The skillful Tremain draws us into these tales and then, without a lot of stylistic ceremony, reveals what lies beneath the surface: the impossibility of avoiding despair and the extraordinary pain that comes with being alive and choosing one thing over another.
Beth, the protagonist of the collection’s title story, “The American Lover,” is on her way down. At 19, she embarked on a transgressive love affair with a caddish American photographer who was as old as her father and still had a wife in Malibu. Now it is many years later and Beth still has a broken heart as well as broken legs, having been the victim not only of the voluntary accident of bad love but also an actual accident in the flashy red sports car she purchased with the proceeds from her best-selling novel, The American Lover, about her ruinous love affair.
In economical and elegant prose, Tremain delineates Beth’s youth at the time of the affair by describing the items she chose to take with her when she ran off with this American lover. It “came down to very little, just a few nice clothes, including a grey sleeveless dress from Mary Quant [it is 1964] and four pairs of high-heeled boots. Pressed in among these things was the notebook she’d taken to Paris, which was meant to be full of notes towards a novel, but which contained no notes at all […]. A copy of Le Petit Prince by Saint-Exupéry and Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina,” as well as “a wooden tennis racket and two silver cups she’d won at school — one for being tennis champion, the other for ‘good citizenship.’”
Like the deft filmmaker who eschews drowning terribly sad things in terribly sad music, Tremain gives sentimentality a wide berth. Her characters’ struggles remain unadorned; their stories are told briskly without the fussy cadence of melodrama. Their pain, like our own, tends not to be accompanied by symphonic flourishes. As Beth tells the kindly Portuguese maid, who is now her caretaker in “The American Lover”: “I did have a beautiful life. It ended early, that’s all.”
Lives do not “go as imagined” in Tremain’s hands. Human equanimity is fragile at best, and the chance of recovering from a wrong turn slim to none. In “Smithy,” an unassuming old man, retired from some uncompelling job, finds meaning by strolling the lanes of his neighborhood to pick up litter. One day he comes upon something “enormous and unfamiliar lying by the dog-rose hedge.” This torn and bloated item is a discarded mattress — a “dull purple” blight on Smithy’s tidy landscape, and it takes from him even the modicum of control he has over his cramped world. Smithy, “though he’d never believed in any Saviour of Mankind,” finds “himself stupidly praying, ‘Let that thing not be there.’ More than this, he wanted it never to have been there.”
In “Captive,” a solitary dog kennel owner, living on the remaining shard of the farm his parents left him, finds himself trapped in a killing winter storm without heating fuel and awakens to confront a “lifeless snow-covered mound,” which is, in fact, the “fat little corpse” of his dachshund, Cherry.
Again and again Tremain breaks the news to the reader, albeit with infinite tact, that things are most certainly not “all good.” An elderly couple flees permanently to their summer cottage in Canada, leaving their home in Nashville to their errant daughter — a feckless Opry wannabe who has taken over the place as she flits from man to man and hope to hope. A posh “Juliet” in 21st-century London is torn between her overwhelming sexual connection with the illegal Moldavian carpenter who is remodeling the downstairs flat in her building and her marriage to a priggish country gentleman whose money could save her family’s estate. A middle-aged woman, still traumatized by the death of her pilot husband in the waning days of World War II decades earlier, tries to unearth the truth of his last moments.
The world in these stories can be “a barbaric place, where there is no order or kindness, the sort of place [one] hoped never to inhabit.” Calamity does not creep up on Tremain’s characters. It pounces. Whatever agency people have is generally misguided. When they choose their own fate they are likely bedding down with disaster.
Happiness, on the other hand, when it comes, is usually the product of happenstance. Occasional transcendent moments tend to result from accident, not agency. Two of the most beguiling stories in this wonderfully varied collection, while hardly triumphalist narratives, demonstrate this point.
In “The Jester of Astapovo,” Ivan Andreyevich is the stationmaster of a railroad stop in a remote Russian village; he is in the throes of an existential crisis, terrified by the specter of meaninglessness: “My life’s at a standstill. Trains come and go, come and go past my door […] but I live without moving at a way-station where nothing stops for long or endures — except the monotony of all that’s already here.” And then a train stops and who should be on it but the fatally ill Leo Tolstoy. Ivan Andreyevich offers the dying man his bed. The Russian media, the literati, as well as Tolstoy’s estranged wife and children all flock to Astapovo. And for the blink of a historical eye this village becomes the center of the universe, and Ivan Andreyevich a celebrity. He has, at last, found “the condition of marvelousness” he sought.
In “BlackBerry Winter,” a lovely haiku of a story, Fran comes to Norfolk to look after her “old, angry and rude,” mother, who says things like: “You’re not far off fifty and what have you done with your life? Made Christmas decorations out of sacking.” During this bleak weekend, which promises only icy storms and further recriminations, Fran too manages to stumble upon a “condition of marvelousness” through a text message, the titular BlackBerry being a phone, not a bush.
While Tremain’s central preoccupation is what breaks the heart, she is also interested in the power of writing in general and fiction in particular to erase, to replace, to liberate, and to destroy. A text message alters a woman’s future. On his deathbed Tolstoy rescues a stationmaster from a life without incident. The victim of a disastrous love affair writes a novel about it and gets rich enough to buy a red sports car and a house in the South of France.
“Everybody believes that I am an invented person: Mrs Danvers. […] ‘Miss du Maurier’s finest creation’ […]. But I have my own story. I have a history and a soul.” So begins “The Housekeeper,” perhaps the book’s most compelling story. Here the real Mrs. Danvers is actually Mrs. Danowski, a Polish Jew forced to flee to England before World War II. Danowski found work as a housekeeper at a country estate called Mandeville, where Daphne du Maurier, scouting authentic locales for her gothic novel Rebecca, visited in 1936. Danowski’s tragedy, which is at once historical and personal, is compounded by du Maurier’s decision to appropriate her as the model for the evil Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca.
Tremain is often at her best in the tragic mode and close to home. In perhaps the book’s least convincing story, “A View of Lake Superior in the Fall,” Tremain has an elderly bookstore owner from Nashville speak (when he is not reciting Yeats to his wife) like a redneck at the NASCAR races. But that is a small weakness in a strong collection.
The way that “love lays ghastly traps for the soul” is the overarching concern of these engrossing tales. But Tremain’s characters accept their unhappiness as the necessary antidote to meaninglessness. Time and again they choose grief over nothingness.
Mary F. Corey teaches intellectual and cultural history at UCLA.