Re­flec­tions on lovers’ re­union

The Herald Magazine - - Arts / Books - Sylvia Brown­rigg ALAS­TAIR MABBOTT

Brown­rigg’s 2001 novel Pages for You told of 17-year-old Flan­nery Jansen go­ing to Yale, and of the pas­sion­ate love af­fair she had there with Anne Ar­den, a teach­ing as­sis­tant a decade her se­nior. Its long-awaited se­quel picks up their story 20 years later, in a way that’s bound to di­vide fans of the ear­lier book.

Flan­nery is now liv­ing in San Fran­cisco, wife to the fa­mous but boor­ish artist Charles Mar­shall and mother to six-year-old daugh­ter Willa.

Since her Yale days, she has had one suc­cess­ful book pub­lished, about the Mex­i­can odyssey on which she met her fa­ther for the first time, fol­lowed up by a novel which was ar­guably a bet­ter book but sank without trace.

Her abil­ity to write has been eaten away by the de­mands of par­ent­hood and a not al­to­gether happy mar­riage. But when she is in­vited to a writ­ers’ con­fer­ence and sees that Anne Ar­den will be chair­ing it, her feel­ings for her former lover are rekin­dled, along with the hope that the ex­pe­ri­ence might reawaken her dor­mant cre­ativ­ity.

Anne, too, is ex­cited by the prospect of a re­union. Now 48 and child­less by choice, she is a re­spected and suc­cess­ful aca­demic who was, un­til two years ago, in a long-term re­la­tion­ship with a man which ended when he de­cided he did want chil­dren af­ter all and left her for a younger woman.

While on the sur­face she’s leading a re­ward­ing, en­vi­able life, Anne is spend­ing a lot more time ques­tion­ing who she is and what it’s all for.

Both Flan­nery and Anne look back on what they shared as be­ing the great love of their lives, but get­ting them back in the same room to­gether is low on Brown­rigg’s list of pri­or­i­ties, and that par­tic­u­lar grat­i­fi­ca­tion is de­ferred un­til the clos­ing stages.

It’s the an­tic­i­pa­tion that drives this novel, forc­ing the pair to re­flect on what has hap­pened to them since they last met, the lives they lead now and the peo­ple they have be­come.

And from that per­spec­tive it’s an in­ti­mate and in-depth, and quite spell­bind­ing, ex­plo­ration of two con­trast­ing char­ac­ters, show­ing them in all their com­plex­ity and ex­am­in­ing themes of re­spon­si­bil­ity, self-sac­ri­fice, do­mes­tic­ity and par­ent­hood, im­bal­anced re­la­tion­ships and sex­u­al­ity.

Brown­rigg’s tal­ent for char­ac­ter­i­sa­tion does fal­ter at times.

Although Anne’s part­ner, Jasper, is por­trayed as a thought­ful man of sub­tle depths, the brash and self-im­por­tant Mar­shall comes close to car­i­ca­ture, for all the un­de­ni­able im­pact he makes on the story. His art­works are ap­par­ently ex­ten­sions of him­self: big, im­pos­ing and un­sub­tle.

It is one of the few weak links in a novel that delves deeply into the psy­ches of two com­pli­cated in­di­vid­u­als, their sense of them­selves and their con­nec­tions to their fam­i­lies and each other.

An­other, depend­ing on how in­vested read­ers are in their re­la­tion­ship, would be the re­union of Flan­nery and Anne, af­ter which the story winds up all too soon, as though Brown­rigg never quite knew what she was go­ing to do with them, or just wanted to leave some­thing for a third book.

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