Vendela Vida’s “The Lovers” sets the mood

Following upon “Eat, Pray, Love,” a new trend in women’s fiction (from the San Diego Union Tribune)

“The Lovers” by Vendela Vida, HarperCollins; 228 pages; $23.99

The popularity of the recent movie Eat Pray Love (starring Julia Roberts and based on Elizabeth Gilbert’s best-selling book) provides the most visible evidence of a current cultural phenomenon: reminiscences by women of a certain age. What should we call them — these avatars of Joni Mitchell, dressed in their TravelSmith adventure wear and serenely amused by their hippie past? They have invented their own genre. Some of it comes in the form of memoirs and others as novels.

Besides the movie and Gilbert’s book, there’s Patti Smith’s terrific recollection of the 1970s in Just Kids. There’s Ann Beattie’s Walks With Men, a novella about the same era and about being a bright young thing in Manhattan then. Now comes Vendela Vida’s The Lovers, as good a novel as you’ll get this year provided you stop at Page 169.

Loss, not surprisingly, is the hallmark of these backward glances. Divorce is the engine behind Eat, Pray, Love. Patti Smith mourns the death of Robert Mapplethorpe. The mentor and lover in Beattie’s novella mysteriously disappears, along with those Golden Days. And Yvonne, the heroine of Vida’s story, lost her husband, Peter, some years ago.

As the novel opens, Yvonne travels to Turkey, where she honeymooned 28 years before and where this widow hopes to recover something. The setting is a surprise. While the movie Shirley Valentine suggested that Greece is the ideal locale for women intent on middle-aged makeovers, Vida has chosen a venue farther east and more edgy. Besides the Literature of Grief, in other words, Vida’s novel is also Travel Literature, but the moody kind written by the likes of Jay McInerney. Indeed, Vida has recently written about Datça and Knidos, the Turkish locales of this novel, in a “destinations” essay in the Travel pages of The New York Times.

Much of The Lovers is internal monologue (as Vida’s heroine finds her way through grief and reminiscence) and pithy insights about others (in the manner practiced by Beattie). Inside her head, Yvonne interacts with her twins, Aurelia and Matthew, now in their 20s and who represent the twin ways parents feel about their offspring (viz. anxiety and pride, respectively). In the extramental world, Yvonne occasionally meets with Özlem, who is estranged from her husband and thereby a soul mate to this widow. Yvonne also spends time with a young boy named Ahmet who is central to the pivotal event in the novel — an event, unfortunately, that cannot be described without spoiling the reader’s experience with the book.

The genius of this book, however, does not lie in its facts or plot. What makes this novel superb and my favorite of the summer is its sensibilité — the special mood it evokes. In terms of color and temperature, its closest cousin is The Sheltering Sky — both the book by Paul Bowles and the movie starring Debra Winger and John Malkovich — with its mixture of melancholy and suspicion, the erotic and exotic.

But the novel of sensibilité often has problems, alas, with conclusions. In preferring feeling over plot, such books may provide a nice ride, but as the pages tick down to the back of the book, the author may finally experience misgivings and reach too desperately for order and faked finality. Which is why you should stop reading The Lovers at Page 169, or shortly after Yvonne realizes “I am the mother of whatever household I enter.”

In these last pages, Vida opts for evasion and distraction by accelerating the narrative into a dizzying swirl of passions and vertigo; apropos, this is accompanied by rhapsodic references to Rumi and the Whirling Dervishes. In a similar but unnecessary effort to add belated meaning, Vida also throws in the clichés of the Orientalist: confusing encounters in mystic caves (E.M. Forester’s Passage to India) and erotic anxieties of the white-woman-in-the-harem (The Sheltering Sky and a thousand others). Finally, Vida reaches for an epiphany, but in the daylight, Yvonne’s insight about her daughter seems rather ordinary, albeit inflated.

Nonetheless — and this is a Great Nonetheless — I loved this book; out of several dozen books I read this summer, The Lovers was my favorite by a mile. And you will love it too, if you stop at Page 169. At this length, Vida’s novella is a brilliant book and minor classic.

  • Originally appeared in the San Diego Union Tribune (October 18, 2010)
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18. May 2016 by
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