“ Genre: Fiction/ Romance / Author: Rebecca Heath / Kindle Edition / ISBN: 1463676301 „
What is it about?
At the start of the book Kate has inherited her mother's house and is sorting it out ready for sale when she discovers a box of old letters. She realises that her mother has kept every letter that she ever received, going back more than 60 years, including those from Kate. As she reads some of the letters, Kate casts her mind back to her youth and particularly to her student days at the University of Washington in Seattle in the late 1950s, where she met Dr David Rosenau, a handsome and brilliant professor of biochemistry. Kate narrates the story, recounting the clandestine relationship that developed between the two of them. David was almost 30 years her senior and married with two children. Kate was a gifted student but unsophisticated and naïve. Kate's memoirs, combined with the letters she wrote home to her parents, provide an evocative glimpse into the cultural and moral climate of 1950s America and the dilemmas faced by those who were brave (or foolish) enough to bend the rules for the sake of love.
My thoughts about the novel
I had mixed feelings about this novel. When I began reading, I was intrigued by Kate's discovery of her mother's letter collection. It seemed to be a great premise for a novel. I honestly thought the book was going to be about the many different people who had touched her mother's life and I was expecting the various plot strands to be woven together by reference to the many different letters received by the mother over the years. So I was somewhat disappointed to find that the plot of the novel revolved solely around Kate's affair with David Rosenau. The title of the book and the introductory chapter led me to believe that the letters (and indeed the mother) would play a more significant part in the plot. Kate's letters to her parents are full of chit chat, whereas her personal memoirs are extremely revealing about the highs and lows of her illicit relationship. I found myself getting impatient each time I came to a letter as they didn't add anything from a dramatic point of view. They just interrupted the flow of the narrative. However, I can see that the author probably wanted to convey the contrast between the innocent, studious persona Kate presented to her parents in the letters and her private moral predicament.
What I did like about the book was that it captures the mood of the pre-Women's Lib years perfectly, conveying very well Kate's astonishing sexual ignorance - "am I supposed to part my lips when we kiss?" - her feelings of guilt about enjoying sex and her angst about how to avoid pregnancy. The pill was still years away and female students like Kate had to be back in their halls of residence by 11 p.m. or risk an inquisition with the 'housemother'. I found Kate's conversations with her roommate about such matters as whether a man will still respect her if she sleeps with him quite fascinating. It is hard to imagine living in such a climate of shame and it felt as if I was reading about the dark ages.
Despite some predictable aspects to the plot, I felt that this 'age difference' romance had quite a bit of depth to it. In David we see someone who is a success in academic terms, yet on a personal level he feels stifled and unfulfilled, trapped in an unhappy marriage. Kate is in awe of him because of his professional achievements, yet David's confidence is low. He is conscious of being a failure in all the things that truly matter to him. The novel makes us think about the nature of happiness. Can it be found by living in the moment? Kate has to battle with the reality that, as a married man, David can't offer her a home, a future or a family. In the absence of a future, are friendship, affection, understanding and love enough, one day at a time? As Kate asks herself, does tomorrow and the next year matter?
I felt that the relationship between the two lovers was quite well observed with the author showing a real grasp of the emotional complexities experienced by the couple. I could relate to Kate's deflated feelings each time she and David had to part. There is a reference to "the ebb tide of melancholy", the current of sadness that flows beneath the happier moments when the couple are faced with the limitations of their situation. It is a very powerful account of how love can become obsessive. We see Kate becoming dependent on David to validate her existence. Her achievements no longer matter; all that matters is the way he responds to those achievements. "Link by link I forged the chain that bound me to him; I fettered my ankles as eagerly as a medieval monk doing penance." Anyone who has known what it is to be in an addictive relationship will relate to this and how Kate feels as if she is in limbo between meetings with her lover. The tug of war between the emotional and rational sides of the brain, when you are ready to jeopardise your whole future for the sake of love is expressed very credibly. Far from being a shallow, Mills & Boon type romance, this book conveys the darker side of being head over heels in love. The term 'heart ache' isn't used casually here.
In many respects this is quite a gentle romance with some charming, old-fashioned moments, such as David wooing Kate with strawberry shortcake and whipped cream in the student union cafe, which he refers to as his "patented shyness remedy" and lifting her off her feet on a trip to the zoo, swinging her round in his arms until they're both giddy with laughter. It's all beautifully innocent. There is also a lovely scene where the lovers visit an aquarium - "We watched the marine creatures gliding behind the glass and then we kissed languorously like divers overcome by rapture of the deep. I felt as though I should hold my breath, as though at any instant we had to break apart and swim for the surface." I thought this was an incredibly powerful, sensual piece of writing.
On the downside, I found the book rather slow-paced and I was put off by the author's need to include so much technical detail in the scenes where the couple go sailing. References to furling the mainsail and removing the jib from the forestay meant nothing to me but there were many paragraphs of this sort of language and I found it rather hard going. I can appreciate that sailing was some kind of metaphor for the power of natural forces and the couple's personal struggle, but the amount of jargon was unnecessary and made tedious reading.
I am disappointed to say that many of the actual sex scenes left me cold and at times I found the author's writing style decidedly unerotic . "You were like a flower, opening up to me petal by petal, and I was coming at you like a threshing machine" declares David at one stage in a cringingly embarrassing piece of imagery. The most unsexy metaphor for me though was when Kate says "we made love drowsily, languorous as a pair of sloths." (Sloths having sex isn't the sort of thing that floats my boat!) There's also a rather bizarre section where David confides to Kate how his wife is repelled by his body hair. It's supposed to be a sensitive moment but I kept conjuring up images of a gorilla, which just spoiled the mood completely.
When I read reviews of this book at Amazon a lot of people were raving about how good it was. For me it was okay but nothing special. I didn't particularly warm to the characters - in particular David, who seemed incredibly self-centred and patronising - which meant that I didn't really care what happened to them. I felt the period detail was depicted well and the emotional turmoil of the illicit lovers was sensitively conveyed, but there was nothing particularly gripping or surprising in the plot or the ending. It was a pleasant read, without making a huge impression on me. I never felt that I would abandon it halfway through and not finish it, but it wasn't the sort of book I couldn't put down either. At £1.43 for Kindle it is reasonably priced and if you have a specific interest in 1950s history and culture, it may be worth a read.