nothing makes you jealous like something you didn’t actually want in the first place

The Forgotten Waltz, by Anne Enright

On its face (and by its cover) The Forgotten Waltz really isn’t my sort of novel. It’s a story of an affair and the impact it has on the marriages and families of those affected. Middle class adultery – Hampstead Novel territory, everything I dislike in what too often passes for literary fiction in the UK.

The truth is, if it hadn’t been for my #readwomen2014 project (see my post on it here) I might well never have read this – the subject matter has so little interest that it would likely have deterred me (even despite great reviews from bloggers such as Kevinfromcanada, John Self’s Asylum, Reading Matters and others).

Here’s the cover, with an attractive younger woman looking wistful and sad. The narrator by contrast is in her mid-30s, plump, cheerful and funny.

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“Achingly brilliant”, “Tender”, “A love story for our times”. God it sounds awful. All that and Enright won the Booker too, could it be made to seem any more tasteful?

Mercifully, what follows isn’t tasteful at all. Instead it’s a story of a fairly banal affair, but told in a refreshingly spiky and unrepentant way, peppered with sharp observations and asides. It opens disquietingly:

IF IT HADN’T been for the child then none of this might have happened, but the fact that a child was involved made everything that much harder to forgive.

The narrator is Gina, who anyway isn’t particularly looking to be forgiven. The child belongs to Seán, the man she had an affair with, the man she’s now living with. The story is how that happened, what it did to Gina’s husband, Seán’s wife, to the child too. It’s not really a story though, more just some things that happened, some lives:

I can’t be too bothered here, with chronology. The idea that if you tell it, one thing after another, then everything will make sense. It doesn’t make sense.

You’ll see below what looks like some massive spoilers in terms of what happens. They’re not – as the quote above indicates this isn’t a story where you read to find out what happens. You know what happens from the beginning, just not how it happened. Every chapter somehow seems to contain the whole thing, just from different angles as Gina turns it all around in her mind.

The backdrop is the recent Irish boom and collapse (the events in the book span roughly 2002 to 2009). Gina works for an internet company, her husband Conor works online from home, Seán is a consultant, Ireland’s a Celtic Tiger and everyone’s making money even if nobody’s actually doing anything particularly concrete. It’s a heady time.

Gina first meets Seán at a party hosted by her sister. Nothing comes of that first meeting. Gina moves on, marries Conor whom she loves though not with any deep passion, but she and Seán are part of the same circle and they’ll meet again. Later Gina will invest significance in that first meeting, but there really doesn’t seem to be any. If it hadn’t been Seán it might well have been someone else, and she’s definitely not Seán’s first affair – just the first to be made public.

Gina and Seán are products of their time, a buoyant seemingly consequence-free time where nobody looks too hard at the underlying fundamentals and everything’s fine as long so the markets keep heading up. Gina’s smart, but she’s not reflective, and anyway why should she be when everything’s going so well? She’s a lucky woman at a lucky time. Enright captures brilliantly that sense of finding yourself somehow having become independent, responsible, in your 30s even, when inside you’re the same as you ever were. She captures equally well the artificiality of ordinary life:

Fiona keeps expecting me to help because I am her sister. She passes with an armful of plates and shoots me a dark look. Then she remembers that I am a guest and offers me some Chardonnay. ‘Yes,’ I say. ‘Yes, I’d love some, thanks,’ and we chat like grown-ups. The glass she fills me is the size of a swimming pool.

Of course they are grown-ups, all of them. The only person who isn’t is Evie, Seán and Aileen’s child, who has ongoing health issues and is about to see her parents break up through all this. That isn’t to say the adults all share the fault here, if there’s fault to be handed out it belongs squarely with Gina and Seán. Conor is the only genuinely sympathetic character in the book (and even he’s a bit of a man-child) and Aileen’s worst feature is perhaps being a bit boring, a bit staid.

[Aileen] wasn’t as old as I remembered, though she sported some very middle-aged lipstick, pinkish and pearlised, on her unprepossessing, useful face. She was wearing a black Issey Miyake pleats dress edged with turquoise, and the collar stood up around her neck in a sharp frill. It made her look like some soft creature, poking out of its beautiful, hard shell.

The pleats dress is typical of Gina’s/Enright’s eye for detail. It’s exactly what a successful middle class woman might wear – it’s professional, conservative yet still innovative (I have to admit here I’m actually rather fond of Miyake’s stuff which I think treads the careful balance between creativity and wearability particularly well). It leads too though into that wonderful image of Aileen as some kind of lovely but fragile animal, perfect but too easily broken.

There isn’t a particularly good reason for the affair. Gina runs into Seán at an overseas conference. They have a one-night stand. Later, back in Ireland, he works for a while as a consultant to her company and they meet again. Their affair is ordinary. It’s not love, it’s sex. The angriest she gets with him is when she sees an internal management report he’s written where he says that she’s “‘most ideally suited to a secondary role'”. We’re not in Romeo and Juliet territory here.

What’s works here is precisely what in a less well written novel might have had me throw the book aside. The utter ordinariness, banality even, of it all. Gina has no real insight into her own motives, she contradicts herself constantly on how she feels, what she desires. She knows she does this and she doesn’t care, her gaze is focused outwards. For me this made her all the more convincing and often rather likeable (I said she wasn’t sympathetic, but then I don’t think she’d want sympathy much). Here she is after the affair has started

At home, I was cross with Conor all the time. How could he be with me all evening, eat Indian takeaway, watch ‘The Sopranos’, and not realise the turmoil I was in? If love was a kind of knowledge then he could not love me, because he hadn’t the faintest clue. It was a strange feeling. Some fundamental force had been removed from our love; like telling the world there was no such thing as gravity, after all. He did not know me. He did not know his own bed.

Seán isn’t particularly attractive, imaginative or funny. His best feature is his confidence, often manifested rather unpleasantly in his controlling behaviour, but Gina’s hardly a passive and easily-swayed victim. He’s actually not much of a catch – successful but a married man with a child and a history of infidelity. If he cheated on Aileen there’s no reason to believe he won’t do the same to Gina. Again, he’s ordinary. If you’ve worked in an office you’ve worked with men like him.

The economic backdrop of course adds interest to all this. These characters are headed for a reckoning, but it’s not really a reckoning of their own doing and it comes for Gina’s sister or for Aileen as much as it does for anyone else. Later in the book Gina and Seán are struggling for money, the economy’s collapsed and they’re trying to sell Gina’s mother’s house but nobody’s buying anymore no matter how much they drop the price. Everyone’s hurting though, not just them.

It would be easy to see all that as a consequence of what’s gone before, and of course at the macroeconomic level it sort of is – a national hangover after a too-long party where nobody asked the right questions.At the level of individual lives though that’s reading too much in. Rather it’s just stuff that happens – Gina has a great job and a successful marriage; Gina has an affair; the Irish economy collapses; Gina and Seán leave their respective partners for each other; Gina ends up looking part-time after Seán’s kid that she never had any great interest in or rapport with. You can connect it all if you wish, draw some moral implication, but Enright isn’t that facile. It’s just life.

It’s also thoroughly, delightfully, unromantic. Each chapter is titled with a love song, but the sentiment that suggests is utterly undermined by the practicality of hotel room hookups and arrangements over childcare. Love songs anyway don’t fit with Gina’s gleeful sense of the absurd, of the ludicrousness of it all:

“I just can’t believe it. That all you have to do is sleep with somebody and get caught and you never have to see your in-laws again. Ever. Pfffft! Gone. It’s the nearest thing to magic I have yet found.”

Except, of course, that it’s not ludicrous. It’s not ultimately all that funny. A child was involved after all, a fact which underlines that actually all this does matter, that there are consequences after all, that there is fallout for Evie and for Aileen and Conor and many others. In the end, the fact that a child was involved makes everything that much harder to forgive.

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18 Comments

Filed under Enright, Anne, Irish fiction

18 responses to “nothing makes you jealous like something you didn’t actually want in the first place

  1. Fabulous review, you’ve perfectly captured Enright’s style. I love her work for it’s lack of sentimentality….

  2. Thanks for this review, as if I need to add another book to my list. I read The Gathering and found it gut wrenching, unpleasant and altogether amazing if a book can be all of those things. This sounds like another wonderfully unromantic novel. I had noted it at one time but never got around to it. The cover in North America, is just an image of empty sheets…

  3. Thnaks Max: I hadn’t hard of the term Hampstead novel before, so that was news to me. I think I’d like this. Just finished a novel which covered married couples who stayed together who really shouldn’t have.

  4. Glad to see you review this one, Max, as I bought a copy earlier this year and based on your review I think I’ll click with it. I’ve been intending to read Enright for a while ever since I came across her Guardian review of A Girl is a Half-formed Thing. I’d been put off The Gathering by a friend who really didn’t get on with it, so I’m encouraged by roughghosts’ comments.

  5. Two rogue apostrophes in my first six words, now corrected (it’s to its). I’m hoping that was an autocorrect issue, but I was tired when I put this up so it might well not be. Oh well. If I were capable of feeling shame I’d feel it undendingly over such an egregious error.

    Cathy, thanks, are there others by her you’d particularly recommend?

    Rough, sorry to add to the to be read pile,,, Empty sheets sounds much better actually, to the point and not as wistful as this cover is. I actually don’t think this is that bad a cover, but it does mislead as to the tone of the book. Probably helped sales though which is after all its main job.

    Guy, I only heard it for the first time recently, but as soon as I did I recognised what it was referring to. I suspect you might like this too, and I think you’d find the economic background interesting.

    Jacqui, I’ll look forward to seeing your thoughts. Was her review of the McBride interesting? I missed it.

  6. You’ve sold me on this book. Normally this isn’t something I’d enjoy, but the elements you’ve isolated here are quite insightful.

  7. leroyhunter

    The great thing about this book, for me anyway, was how it captured the feeling of the boom. There was something in the air that made it seem like people were only playing at being rich, sophisticated, jet-set – however you want to describe it – but were really just giddy, irresponsible kids underneath it all. Maybe because so much of it was credit-fuelled, and deep down people knew it wasn’t real? Anyway, it just happened too fast for people to adjust in a mature manner to the flood of money, and the easiest responses were consumerism, over-indulgence and the shallowness that pervades the relationships Enright describes.

  8. Literary, I hope you enjoy this one then. It is quite insightful.

    Leroy, absolutely, it comes out in that quote about feeling grown up I think. That sense of play-acting at something slightly unreal, the sense of moving so fast you’re almost weightless, and not looking too hard because deep down you probably know it doesn’t quite add up. Enright’s very good on that.

  9. I’m with Leroy — what particularly stays with me from this book (and your review captures it) is the way Enright develops characters who are just riding the wave of the moment and setting the stage for their own self-implosion. Which just happens to be coincide with a total economic meltdown.

  10. I thought you brought that point out particularly well Kevin, I think their lives are in a sense a mirror of their times, riding the wave of the moment as you rightly say. Thanks for helping put me onto this one.

  11. Max – here’s a link here to Enright’s review:

    http://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/sep/20/girl-half-formed-thing-review

    It was one of the first (if not THE first) reviews for Girl I’d read and Enright’s comments about it being a real book, almost like a living thing itself, stuck in my mind. And she has it down as an instant classic..

  12. I missed this post, I don’t know how.
    This sounds really good. The last quote is funny, I think I’d like “hearing” Gina)

    PS: When I read the title, I thought about Swann and Odette.

  13. Gina’s great, she’s just so unapologetic even though she’s plainly in the wrong (and doesn’t pretend to herself that she isn’t). She’s very credible, though many readers find her unsympathetic (along with everyone else in the novel). Unsympathetic isn’t really the point here though, the characters are messily human which is why the book works, they’re not neat vehicles for readers to invest in.

    I’m heading back into Proust next month. Looking forward to it.

  14. Pingback: Looking back on #readwomen2014 and my favourite reads of the year | Pechorin's Journal

  15. Hi Max, just dropping back with a few comments on this novel which I read last year but didn’t write up at the time, partly due to other priorities, but mostly because I didn’t take to it very well. I know you welcome debate and alternative views, hence my reason for dropping back. (I really ought to have done so before now, but I guess I wanted to mull it over for a while, and then it just slipped my mind.)

    So, The Forgotten Waltz – I guess my main problem with it stemmed from a lack of connection with (or sympathy for) any of the central characters. With the possible exception of Evie, I just didn’t care about any of them, Gina and Sean in particular. Sean I found deeply unpleasant, shallow and self-centred, while Gina just annoyed the hell out of me. I know I’m dangerously close to saying that I didn’t warm to this novel because it’s full of unlikeabe characters, but it’s a bit more complicated than that. At least I think it is. I’ve read plenty of other novels populated with outwardly difficult or unpleasant characters, but in the vast majority of cases I’ve found something to latch on to, even it’s just a glimmer of vulnerability or fragility to elicit my sympathy. I’m not necessarily saying that Enright has failed on this front with Gina and Sean, it’s just that I couldn’t see it or feel it when I read the book. (As a slight aside, I couldn’t work out why Gina hadn’t left Conor a lot earlier. He just seemed so bland and somewhat wrapped up in his his own little world compared to her…but then again, maybe that’s one of the reasons why she ended up in an affair with Sean.)

    Anyway, in spite of the fact that I didn’t warm to any of the characters, something about this novel definitely managed to get under my skin. Well, here we are 9 months down the line and it’s still bugging me! So maybe the novel has achieved its desired aim after all…and writing was very impressive, very sharp and accomplished. Will you read The Green Road, do you think? I’m curious to hear what you think of it.

  16. Bit late coming back to this comment.

    I think that’s how you’re supposed to find Sean, because that’s how he is. Conor is about the only one of them who’s not a bit of a shit, whether he’s dull I think is hard to say since we only ever get Gina’s rather self-serving perspective on him.

    Gina I found entertaining because she was so gleefully unrepentant. I wouldn’t want her as a friend in real life given how selfish she is, but I did find her entertaining to read about. Besides which it parallels well for me the private and public; just as they live without thought of consequence or damage in their private lives so does Ireland as a whole in the public sphere.

    I definitely plan to read The Green Road since I have a copy. It doesn’t appeal as much though. I’m a bit leary of Irish family sagas.

  17. That’s okay. It’s taken me 9 months to remember to drop back to comment on it, so there’s no rush.

    All very fair points – and your insight on the parallels between these characters lives and the dynamics in Ireland at the time is very interesting. I don’t think I focused on that aspect of the novel when I read it, but I see what you saying on that front. It makes sense.

    I suppose I’m a bit annoyed with myself for failing to connect with this book because of my own prejudices towards to the characters. I should know better than that to let my own (somewhat unhelpful) emotional responses get in the way of what the book is attempting to convey.

    I’m still curious to see what you make of The Green Road. I wonder if it might be closer to something like Toibin’s Nora Webster (or Brooklyn, even)?

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