Reflections on lovers’ reunion
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.