The dominant tone in this collection of stories is a mix of sadness, loss and regret, but leavened by a wry humour and warmth of human feeling. Deception or exploitation underpins much of the sadness, as in the title story, in which an impressionable young art student in Paris is seduced by her much older, philandering tutor, who introduces her to unusual sexual practices, gets her pregnant then dumps her, leaving her heartbroken. Although she turns the experience into a successful novel (this literary theme is also recurrent), she’s permanently scarred emotionally and spiritually.
‘Juliette Gréco’s Black Dress’ tells a similar story of innocent, youthful love in Paris, but told with rueful irony within the frame narrative of gossiping stylists (is that what you call them?) in an unlovely beauty salon. Love, like ‘beauty’, is a commodity needing time and experience to get right, these stories suggest, and it doesn’t come easily or endure without pain.
Literature appears as an influence in ‘The Jester of Astapovo’, which filters the well-known tale of Tolstoy’s attempt in 1910, when dying, to flee from his wife, and spending his last hours in a stationmaster’s house – the eponymous jester, whose neglected and betrayed wife uses the distraction of the great man’s demise to leave her husband ‘because she’s tired of my jokes’, he quips. Jesting is preferable to despair, he tells his older lover.
‘The Housekeeper’ is the Polish woman who has a passionate affair with Daphne du Maurier, is abandoned by her, then devastated when the writer turns her into an ugly monster in Rebecca. She waited with ‘a fainter and fainter heart’ for love to return, but it doesn’t.
This story too is told in a different way in ‘Extra Geography’: two boarding school girls develop a crush on their teacher, but get out of their emotional depth when she responds more passionately than they’d anticipated.
Possibly the saddest is ‘Captive’, in which the proprietor of a boarding kennel for abandoned dogs (that theme again) faces a grim decision when a spell of Arctic weather sets in and his unfriendly neighbours steal his fuel oil. ‘A View of Lake Superior in the Fall’ comes close, with another portrait of a dysfunctional parent-child relationship that results in flight and guilt.
There’s heartache all round in ‘Lucy and Gaston’, a story which skilfully blends a woman’s frailties in 1976 with the accident that killed her pilot husband in WWII, and the tragic revelations that ensued when his body is found decades after his crash in a boggy field in rural Normandy. ‘Smithy’ is a strange story about an old man’s obsession with clearing litter from a country lane, and his critical encounter with an abandoned mattress.
As in her novels, Rose Tremain writes lucid prose and creates well-rounded, living characters for the most part, though the other stories in this collection look to me a little like exercises.
Being abandoned and forsaken is an inescapable part of the human condition in most of these stories, but they’re not grim: there is often hope, and if there’s no hope, there’s experience.
Rose Tremain, The American Lover and other stories (Vintage paperback, 2015; first hardback edition, 2014). I don’t know what kind of gum the people at Waterstones (where I bought my copy of this book last year) use to stick on those awful ‘Buy one get one half price’ stickers, but they make the cover look most unsightly.