The Irish writer Anne Enright came to international attention in 2007 when her fourth novel, The Gathering, unexpectedly won the Man Booker Prize. A fresh and disturbing novel about family relationships, The Gathering gave readers a cynical, somewhat skewed look at modern Ireland. There was every reason to hope for more of the same from her newest work of fiction, The Forgotten Waltz, a foray into the classic literary territory of bourgeois adultery.
On a certain level, at least, Enright does deliver; she successfully conveys the sense of a particular time and place, Dublin in the first decade of the twenty-first century. From the hungover, post-crash perspective of 2009, Enright’s narrator, Gina Moynihan, looks back over the past several years, “the last furious buying before all the buying stopped, when the word ‘million’ was too real and dirty to say out loud. Way back in the good old days, when…if you wanted your kitchen tiled (and we wanted little else), you had to fly the workman in from England, and put him up in a hotel.” It was a time heady not with spiritual or social hope but with consumerist dreams that look screamingly crude to Gina in retrospect. Back then, everything in her purview had a price tag.
There’s the Clonskeagh townhouse Gina and her burly, genial fiancé, Conor, acquired at a moment when their IT careers seemed almost limitlessly promising: “three hundred grand.” There’s the “two-hundred-and-twenty euros worth of underwear, never mind the dress” she donned to tie the knot. And there are the pictures of that wedding in a photograph album — “five hundred euro, bound in cream leather, now mouldering under the kitchen counter in Conskeagh.” Because Gina has begun a new life with the man for whom she left Conor: Seàn Vallely, whom she met at one of her sister’s suburban barbecues and whose marriage and family life have also fallen victim to this fateful obsession.
Enright has a nice perception of the crass market-value mores of the last decade; she is good at getting across ugliness, both physical and spiritual. She is not so good, at least in this novel, at getting across beauty. Of course beauty is not always the point, but in The Forgotten Waltz Enright asks her readers to enter imaginatively into the passion Gina finds with Seàn. How can we do this when Seàn remains faceless? Seen only through the lens of Gina’s lust, never as a character in his own right, he gives the impression of having his back turned on the reader from our first sight of him to our last.
And more than once Enright resorts to real romance-novel clichés, so that even though we have been told that Seàn is middle-aged and of medium height it’s almost impossible not to envision in place of this less than inspiring figure the tall-dark-and-handsome hero of an Avon Books bodice-ripper.
Even in the strong sun, I was caught by the beauty of his eyes, which were larger than a man’s eyes should be and more easily hurt. I saw the child in him that afternoon, it was easy to see: an eight-year-old charmer, full of mischief and swagger. But I don’t know if I saw how tactical it all was. I don’t think I saw the way he was threatened by his own desires, or how jealousy and desire ran so close in him he had to demean a little the thing he wanted. For example,
The corner of his mouth, for example, which was the precise location of his charm. This was where it happened; at the point where his lower lip doubled back from the upper, the angle — I had kissed it — where they divided and met. In its slow lift, the charm of a smile you do not trust, and like all the more for that.
The language is imprecise and uninspired; occasionally it descends to the irredeemably vulgar. (“Six months later, I was talking to the bank about going out on my own and the bank was licking me slowly all over — as were, now that I pause to think of it, both Seàn Vallely and Conor Shiels.”) Does this vulgarity reflect Gina’s character, or her author’s? The fact that we can’t tell — that there is nothing about Gina, in fact, to mark her as a character rather than a fantasy projection — is another failure on the author’s part.
Certain aspects of the story are well handled; Enright is good at dealing with the delicate, remembered relations between Gina and her now-dead parents, for instance. Seàn’s delicate daughter, Evie, who suffers from epilepsy, and his wife, Aileen, who has all but smothered the unfortunate child with love and fear, also take on a bit of life. But the ardent clenches between Seàn and Gina are the point of the whole thing. Stolen nights at conventions and professional retreats; longing glances across office desks and conference rooms (for the two are colleagues); make-out sessions in the car park; and in all this there is nothing new. Nor in the predictable letdown when early passion is spent: “I don’t know what I expected,” Gina reflects, “that receipts would not have to be filed, or there would be no such thing as bad kitchen cabinets, or that Seàn would switch on a little sidelamp instead of flicking the main switch when he enters a room.”
Welcome to marriage! And we are neither surprised nor particularly disturbed that when all is said and done, Seàn turns out to care more for Evie than for Gina. Observing his happy demeanor with his little girl, Gina is jealous. “He does not hold me by the hand. He does not tickle me, quickly, to get me out of his way. He does not tango me down the hall, and arch me over, backwards. He does not wake in the night, thinking of me.”
Well, we are tempted to ask, so what? How sorry are we to feel for her? How much middle-aged grumbling can we really tolerate? It is only when Enright drops the rueful reflections and resumes her bottom-line calculations that we feel her picture click back into focus. “Who would have thought love could be so expensive?” Gina ponders. “I should sit down and calculate it out at so much per kiss. The price of this house plus the price of that house, divided by two, plus the price of the house we are in. Thousands.”