With “The Lemon Grove,” award-winning British novelist Helen Walsh has penned a sultry, steamy study that pits love against lust during the shimmering heat of a Spanish summer.
Jenn and Greg are entering the second and final week of their annual summer holiday in Majorca. Walsh captures the languor and the sybaritic delight of a sun-soaked, idyllic paradise. Jenn takes a sensual pleasure in all that surrounds her:
Greg is in the kitchen, tearing hunks from a baguette. Jenn can tell from the slight resistance of the flesh that the dough is fresh, still warm. She pulls a piece off for herself, chews it slowly, the aroma and the soft, moist feel of it making her reach for seconds immediately.
Paradise is corrupted when Greg’s teen-aged daughter Emma arrives with her boyfriend Nathan. While Jenn has been the only mother Emma has ever known, their relationship has lately been strained by Emma’s adolescent antics. She had hoped to smooth things over by allowing Emma to bring Nathan along.
Jenn’s reaction to Nathan is visceral:
Surely this cannot be the same kid – the sulky bush baby from the back of the car? He takes a couple of steps toward her, then stops dead. He is wearing a pair of plain blue swimming shorts; otherwise, he is naked before her. He is muscular but graceful with it, balletic. He is shockingly pretty. She is aware of the seeming impropriety of registering these details – he is seventeen – and yet she cannot tear her eyes away.
So begins a flirtatious dance between forty-something Jenn and Nathan. At first, she “hides behind her sunglasses” and watches him. Then, step by stealthy step, the tension builds until she succumbs to temptation, heedlessly throwing herself into an urgent, deeply forbidden, affair that she does her best to deny. “Under the glare of the sun, none of it seems real,” she tells herself. There is neither love nor affection between the two: only the lust of a woman who is losing her bloom and the seemingly insatiable lust of a teen-aged boy.
Jenn loves her professor husband, who is devoted to the Romantic poets, and is angered when Nathan repeatedly sneers at “the old man.” She is scared that Greg knows about her frantic snatched couplings with Nathan. “However he frames it, however much she wants to purge, she will not confess. Deny, deny, deny.” Yet Greg has been preoccupied by troubling career issues that he has been trying to keep to himself so as not to spoil their island stay.
“Everything change,” Jenn is told by an islander. “The Lemon Grove” catalogs the bone-deep changes that affect Jenn, Greg and Emma over the course of a week. Walsh writes with care and authority, pacing her story carefully as the physical attraction between Jenn and Nathan mounts to its inevitable conclusion. Yet there’s more to her story than sex. In the end, “The Lemon Grove” is a stunning meditation on the bonds of marriage and family and the difference between lust and love. It is the best kind of summer reading.
"The Lemon Grove" is available on amazon.com and at your favorite New York bookstores.