What do I want of summer books? In general, I want affirmative books: books that affirm genre conventions, books that affirm common sense, books that affirm my instincts about how to live. There are also practical considerations to keep in mind. I want books that I won’t feel guilty about dripping ice cream on or dirtying with sand and saltwater (or grimy subway hands). This doesn’t mean I’m not giddy to discover a book that upsets my criteria, as is the case with Vendela Vida’s novel The Lovers, a challenging and taut piece of work that, with its exotic setting and cover image of rippling seawater, comes in the guise of a beach read but delivers something much heartier. The magic of The Lovers, in fact, is that it satisfies the requirements of beach readers and non-beach readers alike. I studied and savored it but made sure to keep my copy free of sand.
The novel’s narrator, Yvonne, is a history teacher and the mother of grown twins who returns alone, twenty-eight years later, to the site of her honeymoon after her husband Peter’s sudden death. Renting a posh house on the coast of Turkey, she uncovers remnants of her landlord’s vigorous sex life and meets his spurned wife, a model named Özlem who has her own erotic conundrums to share. Feeling cocooned “in a mood, both wooly and ethereal, that had separated her from her kids, her students, from the rest of the world,” Yvonne eagerly absorbs the company of others, befriending a child named Ahmet who makes extra cash selling seashells to tourists on the beach. When Ahmet vanishes—with Yvonne partly to blame—she finds herself terrified and adrift in a foreign country, determined to make a pilgrimage to Ahmet’s family in order to explain her role in the young boy’s disappearance. This debacle, the rental home booby-trapped with sex toys, the widowed solitude: it’s sinister stuff, and to compound it Vida has a keen eye for the disappointments of travel that frustrate even the staunchest will not to be disappointed: the cabdriver that overcharges, the suspicious local, the offer of friendship that turns out to be a sales pitch.
But The Lovers is hardly a slog. Its mysteries accumulate with a gentle persistence, like waves lapping at the shore: the mystery of Peter’s death, the mystery of her perplexing relationship with her children, the mystery of Ahmet and the riddle of Yvonne herself, whose elusive character manifests as a shape-shifting quality in her own looks. Facing the mirror, Yvonne never sees the same person twice. Sometimes she is “old, old, old,” and sometimes “astounded at how young she looked.” When she receives correspondence from her daughter, she reads “with one eye turned away, in fear of what she might learn.” It’s not easy to get a handle on her, and the key to Yvonne’s character turns out to lie unexpectedly in her profession as a teacher, where she’s grown accustomed to the circumstance of nurturing students who disappear from her supervision in subsequent, inevitable waves. Yvonne’s love contains its own sort of elegy, then; she prepares for the departure of her companion— whether its her own daughter or Özlem— while that companion is still with her, and so places herself at a remove that both parties can’t help but sense. It’s an adaptive trait but not a beneficent one, and in her narrator Vida questions the moral implications of apportioning love in such a way.
In its pared, melancholy prose and plot structured around memories, the book may remind readers of W.G. Sebald or of John Cheever’s great short story, “The Swimmer.” But The Lovers is suspenseful, too, and never indulgently wistful. If the author has chosen to challenge rather than affirm a reader’s expectations, so much the better for us. Yvonne’s voyage to the missing Ahmet’s home is dark but decisive— “She had traveled to Turkey to regain something of what she had had with Peter decades earlier—and failing that, she had befriended a boy. A Turkish boy who spoke nothing of her language. And now he was gone, and she was again searching for some remnant of someone she had lost. Had she ever been so lost herself?” Francine Prose wrote in a blurb for the book that she’d read Vida’s novel “over two days and dreamed about it the second night,” and the thought feels like more than just a blurb-y exaggeration. A novel like the The Lovers— with its subjects of solitude, beauty, and loss—can be just what a reader desires during the summer months. It’s an escape in so many senses.