The Lemon Grove

2.83 avg rating
( 2,847 ratings by Goodreads )
 
9780385538534: The Lemon Grove

“Walsh’s pacing is brilliant, her writing a combination of William Trevor and Erica Jong, as she fearlessly explores the complexities and nuances of a woman surprised by her own feelings.... Gripping.....Can mutual peace really coexist with wild chaos? Walsh’s readers will find themselves eagerly turning the pages, racing to find out.”
--The New York Times Book Review
A highly charged, sultry, beautifully written and compulsive one-sit read, The Lemon Grove is an intense novel about obsession and sex—the perfect summer book.

Jenn and Greg have been married for fourteen years, and, as the book opens, they are enjoying the last week of their annual summer holiday in Deia, a village in Majorca off the coast of southern Spain. Their days are languorous, the time passing by in a haze of rioja-soaked lunches, hours at the beach, and lazy afternoon sex in their beautiful villa. It is the perfect summer idyll . . . until Greg's teenage daughter (Jenn's stepdaughter), Emma, arrives with her new boyfriend, Nathan, in tow.

What follows, over the course of seven days, is a brilliantly paced fever dream of attraction between Jenn and the reckless yet mesmerizing Nathan. It is an intense pas de deux of push and pull, risk and consequence . . . and moral rectitude, as it gets harder and harder for Jenn to stifle her compulsion.

This is a very smart novel about many things: the loss of youth, female sexuality, the lure of May/December temptation, the vicissitudes of marriage and the politics of other people's children. It is simultaneously sexy and substantive, and Helen Walsh's masterful, even-handed tone can't help but force the reader to wonder: "What would I have done?"

Beautifully written with the tension of a rubber band just about to snap, The Lemon Grove is a book that will have people talking all summer long.

"synopsis" may belong to another edition of this title.

About the Author:

Helen Walsh was born in Warrington, England, in 1976. Her second novel, Once Upon a Time in England, was the winner of a Somerset Maugham Award. She now lives in Liverpool.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Excerpted from the Hardcover edition

1.

The sun drops and with it the distant hum of life starts up again. Families and couples weighed down with parasols and brightly patterned bags begin the trudge back up the hill road from the beach. A moped weaves in and out of the slow tide of bodies.

Jenn stays dead still as the weary beach dwellers pass close to the villa. They do not see her sitting on the low stone balustrade of the terrace, hidden among the lengthening shadows of the lemon grove. Their faces are hard to make out but their beach bags and sarongs catch the falling light as they move slowly past the trees. Only one small boy spies her, lagging behind his parents as he drags his inflatable dinghy along the dusty road. Jenn throws him a little-­finger wave. The yellow dinghy scratches to a standstill and hangs there by its cord, shifting slightly in the breeze. The child bares a small bar of teeth, then suddenly aware of the distance between himself and his parents, sprints off up the hill.

Jenn puts down her book, tilts her head back, and closes her eyes. From the pine-­clad cliffs above, she can hear hikers. They speak in German but from their anxious tone and pitch, she comprehends: Hurry, they are telling one another, we need to get down before the light goes. She knows the cliff walk well—­a good two hours from here to Sóller Two hours of staggering vistas and sheer drops to the rocky coves below. More cars and mopeds pass by. The hikers come into view: a group of stout middle-­aged women in robust walking attire. They take the smooth, stone steps down to the road, then stop to pass a water bottle around. They share a joke, but the relief in their voices is evident. Refreshed, and with a new resolve, they strike out for the village. None of them notices her: the woman in the white cotton dress. If they were to glance back they might see Jenn drawing her knees to her chest, locking them with her arms, and looking up as she tries to find the last embers of the sun, to hang on to the moment. She likes the sense of being here, yet being invisible.

She opens her eyes. The first thing she sees is the stone balcony of their bedroom above: the slatted wooden shutters, wide open, the light spilling out of their room emphasizing the sudden shift to evening. The air is beginning to cool. The mosquitoes will be getting in, colonizing the cold white walls, biding their time until later, but she can’t be bothered. She doesn’t want to move. Up there, Greg will be sleeping, or reading, or showering. For now Jenn is happy here, alone. One more chapter, then she’ll go in.

She picks up her book again, Reprisal, a Scandi noir thriller. All her young workers at the nursing home have been raving about it but Greg is right: This particular author is no Pelecanos, and for this she’s grateful. The last thing she wants while on holiday is to be stretched or challenged. This one is all ravishing blondes in fear of a serial killer. She shuts the book—­it is no longer possible to make out the print. She gets up and stretches. Most of the beach traffic has gone now. Through the silence, she can hear the spit and snap of a bonfire. She pictures the hippie kids down on the beach, drying their clothes, cooking their supper. She watched them early this morning, casting out their line from the rocks, time and again reeling in silver, wriggling fish. Boys with straggly beards and bodies scorched from a summer living off the land.

She’d jogged down to the cove at first light. A relic of the moon still hovered above the mountains. The crunch of her feet on the shingle brought two of the beach kids out of their cave. They tried to ward her off with a look, then a joke. And then another boy appeared, naked. He yawned and stretched, lit a cigarette, turning to face her full on. His eyes sought hers, his dick hanging between his legs, mocking and superior, half erect like a threat. She felt a jolt of indignation. If it was solitude they coveted, why pick this beach? Resolutely, she peeled off her T-­shirt, wriggled out of her shorts, and plunged into the sea. It was cold. A dirty gray mirror under the low morning light. For the first few strokes she could barely breathe. Then, striking out, she was overcome by a sense of liberation as she found her rhythm. She swam out, farther and farther, until the first fingers of sunlight stroked her scalp.

Back on the terrace at Villa Ana, when the sun was high and the beach overcrowded, she saw them once again, making their entrance from the cave-­den. Two girls were with them this time. From such a distance, they looked like they’d been sprayed gold. They threw off their sarongs and stretched out their lithe, naked bodies along the flat surface of a rocky overhang, as little bashful as if they were in the privacy of their bedroom. Jenn watched her husband cast a brief sidelong glance, so swift that, if you didn’t know him, you’d think he hadn’t noticed them at all. But Jenn did know him, and his “micro-­leching” still made her smile. She’d raised an eyebrow—­not to chide him but to empathize. The girls—­slim, toned, and young—­were exquisite. He looked away: found out, embarrassed.

It’s dark now, but still she stays. She can hear the distant bleat of goats drifting down the ravine. Here and there, villas with huge glass façades light up the brow of the hillside. All over the valley, the windows of small stone fincas flicker to life. Hidden amid the olive groves by day, they show themselves now as their eyes light up, ready to start the night watch over the Tramuntana.

Nothing moves. The darkness deepens. Jenn shivers, intoxicated by the magic of the hour. The road is no longer visible. The first stars stud the sky. A wind rises, and borne on it, familiar sounds of industry from the restaurants in the village above, the clang of cutlery being laid out, ready for another busy evening. She rubs her belly where it is starting to gnaw. It’s a good kind of hunger, she thinks, the kind she seldom experiences back home; a keen hunger that comes from swimming in the sea and walking under the sun. They’ve done plenty of that this past week, and they’ve drunk plenty, too—­wine, beer, brandies, liqueurs—­they’ve felt as though they’ve earned it, Jenn and Greg. And yesterday, after Greg turned in for the night, she sat by the pool and sparked up one of the Camel Lights she’d found in the kitchen drawer. The kick of it, dirty and bitter, fired her up, made her light-­headed.

The temperature drops. The dark hangs damp in her lungs. Sea dampness: salty and lucid and nicked with the scent of pines. Grudgingly, Jenn accepts that time is up. She goes inside to find an inhaler and chivy Greg along. He’s out on the balcony, fielding a call on his mobile, a glass of brandy hanging loosely from one hand. He’s showered, dressed, scented; his dark, grizzled beard trimmed. He’s wearing his cream linen suit—­he brings it out with him every year. It’s the only time he ever wears it, his gentleman-­abroad look. The suit is a little tight around his broad, heavy shoulders these days, but he looks the part—­august, though somewhat too formal for arty Deià, she thinks. She hangs by the sliding doors. He’s talking to Emma. She feels a tightening in her throat as she listens to him trying to cajole their daughter. She moves out to the balcony and indicates with a two-­fingered tap to the wrist that they’ll need to leave soon. She reaches over, takes the brandy from his hand, and drains the glass in one emphatic hit. He gives her an admiring glance, smiles.

“Can you ask Emma to pick up some dental floss?” she says. “The silk one. Can’t get it over here.”

Greg holds up a finger and shakes his head, not so much a rebuttal of her request as a plea for quiet. Emma is taking him to task over something or other and he is doing his usual thing of tiptoeing around her, taking the path of least resistance. Jenn puts down the empty glass, holds her palms to the sky, and rolls her eyes. She steps inside to locate her inhaler. She came away with three—­now there are none. She’s certain she left one on the floor by her side of the bed. She turns out the solid wood drawers, gets down on her knees to search beneath the bed where, in the absence of rugs, the cool hardness of the ceramic tiles bites right through to her bones. She tips out her makeup bag, noisy in her frustration.

Greg hisses through to her, “Under your pillow!”

Not one but all three of them placed neatly in a row.

“Oh for fuck’s sake,” she says. She blasts once, twice; better.

He holds up a hand to silence her while increasing the pitch of his voice. “Now Em, worst-­case scenario Jenn and I are out . . .”

It kills her, that. All these years on and, when it suits him, whenever he senses a scene, he drops the “Mum.”

“ . . . take a taxi to the village and try Bar Luna. Benni’s bound to be there. He has a key.”

She makes a big thing of closing the shutters, putting on her jacket. She observes herself in the wardrobe mirror, puts a hand to her mouth and snorts. She bought this white cotton dress in the village store yesterday morning. It was a pure impulse buy, something she wouldn’t dream of wearing at home. Yet it’s the kind of floaty, classic, broderie anglaise frock she’d always imagined herself pottering around Deià in if they moved out here for good. Eyeing herself in the shop’s mirror, she liked what she saw. She was elegant yet enigmatic and, yes, sexy; a perception no doubt helped along by the interior candles that shaded her skin a copper brown, the musky incense, the piped flamenco, and the cute gay assistant who came up behind her to lift her hair from her shoulders and whisper, “Que bonita . . . Your eyes are the color of amber.” Now she feels duped. She drags the dress back over her head, and her loosely tied-­up hair falls to her shoulders. She is gratified to spy the label still intact. She hangs it in the wardrobe and straightens out the creases. She looks at herself again, her deep cleavage accentuated by her tan and the spiced auburn shade of her hair, colored only this morning, and she decides that, fuck it, she’s going trashy for one night. Gregory may well tut and bite his lip, but she’s on holiday and she’s showing off what she’s damn well got in tight black jeans and a low-­cut silver T-­shirt.

As she dresses, she sees that Greg has twisted his upper body around the chair frame to observe her. He makes gestures with his hand that indicate a preference for the dress and her hair worn up. With her jeans pulled halfway up her thighs, she shuffles closer to the wardrobe, takes the dress out for one last appraisal. Even at half price, seventy-­five euros was no bargain; and even with the label intact, she anticipates a struggle getting her money back from the campy assistant. She could easily envisage that charm turning to bitchy disdain. She holds it against herself in the mirror. Elegant. Safe. Middle-­aged. She’ll never wear it again once they’re home; she should wear it now, just for him.

He is still watching her. She can hear Emma losing patience with him.

“Oh, poppet, it’s fine,” he cajoles, and turns his gaze away from his wife. “I’m sure Jenn can live without floss for a week or two.”

She places the dress decisively back in the wardrobe and returns to wriggling into the jeans. Was she like that as a teenager? Probably, given half the chance—­but she was blighted with acne at Emma’s age, she was nowhere near pretty enough to get away with it. She shuts the wardrobe door a bit too loudly and leaves him to it. She clumps downstairs. They’ll be late now, whatever.

She takes the last cigarette from the drawers in the kitchen, unhooks the stove lighter from the whitewashed wall, and moves out into the lemon grove. The stark white petals on the overhanging vines glow fluorescent in the dark. Her night vision plays tricks on her: She picks out goats grazing in the grove that, on closer inspection, are no more than tree stumps or bushes. Last night, tipsy from the shots of liquera manzana that accompanied their bill, Jenn coaxed Greg into walking home along the river path. But even beneath the brilliance of the moon, they were forced back onto the road, the rough path made all the more hazardous by loose stones and jutting roots. Tonight they’ll be taking it easy. No matter how fulsome the welcome or how insistent the offer of nightcaps, on the house, tomorrow they must wake with clear heads. Tomorrow, a different kind of holiday starts.

She squats on the rough, dry grass. Lights up. Sucks the smoke deep into her lungs and holds some back on the exhale, popping out a sequence of smoke rings. How will it be, she wonders, playing gooseberry to a couple of teenagers? And what of this boy, Nathan? Nate. The way Emma says his name irks her—­curt, territorial, and loaded with significance, as though Nate were a species in himself, one that she herself had discovered.

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