The Lemon Grove by Helen Walsh is a quintessential summer novel about a British couple – fortysomething Jenn and her older husband Greg – who are spending a two-week vacation at their usual summer rental in Majorca. Greg’s 15 year-old daughter (Jenn’s stepdaughter) Emma joins them for the second half the trip, bringing her boyfriend Nathan with her. Nathan’s 17, and Jenn immediately finds herself attracted to him, despite the wild impropriety of the situation.
As the vacation progresses, Jenn loses perspective and gets more and more obsessed with Nathan. Her feelings oscillate between shame, lust, anger and rejection as she and Nathan circle each other and she has to contend with his parallel relationship with Emma. This book is claustrophobia-inducing, as Walsh confines the action almost entirely to these four characters and the few places they inhabit over the course of the trip – the rental house, the beach, a few restaurants, a hike. Walsh dissects the interactions between the four in great detail, conveying shifting allegiances, affronts and retreats in what felt like real time.
I enjoyed the atmosphere of The Lemon Grove and its summery Mediterranean setting. I could just picture the people in the restaurants, the hippie girl at the beach, the pasta they prepared for dinner. With the action spread over such a short period of time, Walsh really captured the moods of this family’s vacation. She also did a good job with the family dynamics at work among Jenn, Greg and Emma.
I was less enthralled with the story of Jenn and Nathan’s physical relationship. I don’t know how realistic it was. It’s not that I didn’t believe the mutual attraction, it’s just that it all unfolded so quickly. Their vague flirtation escalated immediately, and under the eyes of Greg and Emma, no less, which felt fabricated. I also think that Jenn would have been put off by Nathan’s selfishness and better able to keep her obsession with him under control.
In the end, the summer setting and incisive family dynamics weren’t enough to compensate for the emptiness I felt at the end of the book. The main story – Jenn’s obsession and dalliance with Nathan, didn’t hold up for me and really lessened Jenn as a character.