- The Washington Times - Friday, August 27, 2010

THE LOVERS
By Vendela Vida
Ecco, $23.99, 240 pages

One of Vendela Vida’s talents is picking out details with magpie skill, going for those that glitter evocatively of locations and states of mind. In “The Lovers,” she deploys this virtuoso gift to explore the life of Yvonne, a widowed history teacher from Burlington, Vt., who is vacationing in Turkey. Invited to join her son on an Aegean cruise with his fiancee’s parents, she decides to take the previous days in Datca, the Turkish village where she had honeymooned with her husband, Peter.

The experience is disorienting. Back then Datca was charming: the beach inviting, the cuisine delicious. Now everything is faintly threatening. Yvonne fails to connect with her drivers at the airport. She fears that she’s been cheated by her landlord. But no. They were waiting at another door. She hopes the house will be old and charming. It’s modern, too stark for comfort and peppered with sex manuals and toys. Alarmingly, an owl gets trapped inside.

Hoping it will escape while she’s out, Yvonne goes to the village. But the charms of yesteryear have disappeared. The beach is covered with trash; the cafes are mostly closed. A few miles away, Knidos is somewhat better, especially after Yvonne befriends Ahmet, a boy who gathers and sells pretty shells. Ahmet’s grandmother seems less than enthusiastic about this friendship, even though Yvonne is paying him lavishly for the shells. When tragedy follows, Yvonne is overwhelmed by responsibility and goes to Ahmet’s home in Capadoccia, a dramatic desert region famous for its volcanic landscape eroded into so-called fairy chimneys.

All this time, she’s been reflecting on her life with Peter, who died two years previously. Everything was good until their daughter, Aurelia, became enthralled with alcohol and drugs while in her early teens. As she shuttled in and out of rehab centers, Yvonne sought explanations. Maybe she and Peter haven’t responded to her needs. Maybe Aurelia felt too challenged by her twin brother’s success at everything. After a while, Peter will have none of it. Aurelia’s lies and escapades disgust him. He and Yvonne start to bicker, and they are still at it when a car accident claims his life.

No advanced critical skills are needed to see that the deterioration of the marriage is mirrored by the general disarray of Datca. When Yvonne decides to spend her days in Knidos, it seems she is trying to move on from her disappointments. But while Knidos is better, it leads to disaster - a parallel to Peter’s death - and then to a wilderness of feeling as Yvonne struggles with the weird moonscape and sudden sandstorms of the desert.

These parallels between the outer world and Yvonne’s inner life would seem too forced or too pat were Vendela Vida a less fastidious recorder of the everyday detail that brings her locations and characters to life. Her sharp eye picks the drink cans on the beach, the shuttered shops, the towel spread over the car seat, the isolated idlers sitting at umbrella-shaded tables - images that powerfully suggest the life of hot, shabby, Aegean villages.

Ms. Vida’s descriptions of Yvonne wandering around the clean bare house - inspecting closets, fingering this and that, snacking on junk food rather than sitting down to eat - show how unsettled she is. Her grief - for her husband, for her daughter, for all that has happened - is almost palpable. But while “The Lovers” offers readers this appealing central character and some brilliant evocations of the Turkish landscape, it is less than satisfying as a novel.

The early chapters in Datca raise issues that wave their hands for attention, but are ignored. What are the sex toys doing in the house? How does the owl get in? Everything seems threatening, quite specifically so. Readers are triggered for some aggression against Yvonne - perhaps emanating from her landlord, perhaps from the disgruntled people of Datca. No specific threat ever materializes, and while the events recorded in the novel are traumatic, the forewarnings are too detailed to be apt. When Yvonne flees Datca her story seems almost abandoned.

Attention turns to the strange landscape as she is whirled into a series of meetings that resolves both her feelings about Ahmet and her anxieties about Aurelia. These resolutions come too easily, so easily that they are neither credible as conclusions to Yvonne’s story nor satisfying as an ending to the meditations on love that weave through “The Lovers.” In effect, the novel splits into two parts, equally enticing as pieces of writing, but not functioning together as a whole novel. One reason for this disjunction is that Yvonne’s story is not dense enough for a novel. Virtually all of it is seen through Yvonne’s eyes: her memories of Peter, her reflections on marriage, her anxieties about Aurelia, her thoughts about different kinds of love and responsibility.

The only other characters who play more than bit parts are Ahmet, the shell gatherer, and Oslem, her landlord’s estranged wife. Both are sharply realized but neither has much inner life; they exist as subordinate characters in Yvonne’s tale. Turkey as a country with its own culture is subsumed in the descriptions of its landscapes. This suggests that while “The Lovers” is not long - just 225 smallish pages - at heart its material is really the stuff of a short story; when stretched to novel length there’s not quite enough to do the job satisfactorily.

Claire Hopley is a writer and editor in Amherst, Mass.

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