The American Lover, Rose Tremain – Review by J Stuart Cross
Chatto & Windus –Random House(2014)
Short stories are everywhere these days. They suit the quick consumptive style of reading honed from trawling through clickbait and longreads on the Internet. That is not to say that some aren’t without depth, meaning and merit and this collection works very hard to evoke some of the very best of the genre.
We can see glimpses of Hemmingway’s ‘A Clean, Well-Lighted Place’ in the title story and in ‘The Jester of Astapovo’ Tremain attempts to place Tolstoy in a Chekhovian farce. ‘A View of Lake Superior in the Fall’ is pure bathetic Americana. However the writer that haunts the collection is Jean Rhys.
In ‘The Housekeeper’, Tremain overtly tries to ape Rhys. She copies Rhys’s method in Wide Sargasso Sea, but rather than Brontë she chooses Du Maurier. The result is a story that reads like a homage to Rhys but one that ultimately fails to be as emotionally harrowing. This failing short seems to be, for me at least, Tremain’s intuition that to live on and with devastation, lost love and despair is more poignant than ending the story. For Rhys’s protagonists – that didn’t need to be written. They could never escape themselves.
Tremain’s characters can’t escape their times. Tremain’s characters have the fate of living-on and that creates the effect of pervasive nostalgia through reminiscence and regret. Only that could be said to be the organising principle of this collection. Nostalgia for Jean Shrimpton, simple times and Paris isn’t meaningful in itself.
On a side note, the title story of this collection is liberally peppered with the word ‘transgressive’ throughout, perhaps to evoke the mores and morals of a bygone era. It is such an ugly word choice that it must have resulted in a chat with her editor. If you have read this snippet from The Irish Times and the last story in particular ‘21st Century Juliet’ you do wonder about that relationship. This collection seems a bit like a job lot, not quite chucked together but somewhat lazily compiled.
Nonetheless, it is an entertaining and enjoyable collection but perhaps the lasting effect is a reminder of how delightful Tremain’s influences are. It would be a shame not to also sample those literary inspirations.
The New Yorker fiction podcast has many exemplars of American short story greatness among its recordings but if you are in the mood for something new try Electric literature’s new recommended reading.