Written by Victoria
Rose Tremain is one of those talented writers in whose hands you instantly feel safe. Here, the reader understands, there will be acts of storytelling that take you into their time and place effortlessly, that present vivid characters who may be enigmatic, but not unsympathetic. Even though short stories aren’t always my first port of call in a literary storm, I found myself instantly sucked into these, such is the brilliance of Tremain’s scene setting, and I was able to move eagerly from one story to the next, never weighed down by her pellucid prose.
All this being said, The American Lover feels quite a mixed and matched collection, put together over time without a central guiding preoccupation. Quite a lot of stories felt like excerpts from possible novels that they didn’t become. But oddly enough, I never minded, because Rose Tremain captured my attention every time, and her best stories were extremely tantalising.
If there is anything like a hook on which to gather the tales, it might be the effects a single act of selfish taking, or a unilateral decision, can have on others. In the title story, the melancholy Beth recovers slowly from a bad car accident while recounting the events that brought her to her current place (though current is 1974) to the Portuguese maid, Rosalita. Ten years ago Beth fell in love with much older American photographer, Thaddeus. For a while they lived the dream, before Thaddeus abandons her abruptly, pregnant and alone in Paris. Beth turns their failed romance into a book that makes her briefly rich and famous, but nothing can ease her frozen grief, or kickstart her emotional life again. The reader sees how cold and withdrawn Thaddeus is, while Beth only sees her lost dream of him.
In the darkest, most tragic story, ‘Captive’, Owen Gibbs turns his late parents’ farm into a boarding kennels for dogs, ‘For that was part of human nature: a longing to be rid of the things you’d thought you might be able to love, and found you couldn’t.’ The neighbours don’t appreciate the change, and after an act of vicious sabotage, Owen finds himself in the coldest and snowiest night of the winter without heating, and aware that unless he lets the dogs into the house with him, they will all die.
In ‘A View of Lake Superior in the Fall’, elderly parents Walter and Lena take the unusual decision of running away from their home in Nashville to live in their lake cabin on the Canadian side of Lake Superior. They are running away from their daughter, Shirley, a 42-year-old wild child who has never managed to put her life in order, and who has brought her chaos into her parents’ home. ‘Some elderly people might have taken things more in their stride. But she and Walter were so gentle and quiet and kind in each other’s company, they found it hard to tolerate what Shirley had imposed on them, which felt like a crazy and never-ending carnival of woe.’ Alone at last in the empty expanses of Canadian wilderness, Walter and Lena come to see one another in entirely new ways before tragedy overtakes them again.
My favourite stories, though, were the ones that cleverly re-imagined authors’ lives, or rewrote their stories. In ‘The Jester of Astapovo’, Tremain rewrites the last days of Tolstoy’s life from the point of view of the stationmaster and his wife at the tiny Astopovo stop where Tolstoy is taken from the train after he falls ill. For the stationmaster, the event constitutes the moment he has been living for, but for his ill-tempered wife, it is a claustrophobic and intolerable imposition, as Tolstoy, his daughter, his doctor and finally his estranged wife, Sofia, and her attendants all descend on their two-room cottage.
In ‘21st Century Juliet’, the daughter of Sloany parents is forced to give up her lower-class lover in order to marry the moneyed twit with whom her parents matchmake her, in their desperate need to shore up the family fortune. That her lover, an illegal immigrant, is forced to flee the country after an unfortunate fight results in the death of her cousin, is a neat and clever modern twist. You can see it coming, but the event still surprises and resonates.
And in perhaps the most audacious of all the stories, ‘The Housekeeper’, Mrs Danowski of Manderville Hall provides the novelist, Daphne du Maurier, with a tour of the house and grounds that results in an unexpected erotic tryst. For Mrs Danowski, it’s true love, and for a while it seems to be so for Daphne, too. But then du Maurier abandons the housekeeper and several months later the novel, Rebecca, appears in which she is transformed into the evil Mrs Danvers. ‘I had the fanciful notion,’ the faithful Danowski confesses, ‘that, by setting the novel at Manderville Hall, Miss du Maurier might, somewhere in the book, contrive to send me a coded message that revealed how strong and true her feelings for me had been.’ She cannot help but take personally this act of artistic license.
I enjoyed all the stories in the collection, but the ones that touched the lives and works of great writers were by far and away the standouts for me, and I can only hope Rose Tremain writes more of them.
Victoria is one of the editors of Shiny New Books
Rose Tremain, The American Lover (Chatto & Windus: November, 2014) 978-0701185220, 240 pp, hardback.