Becoming Strangers

Becoming Strangers

5.0 2
by Louise Dean
     
 

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After more than half a century of marriage, Dorothy and George are embarking on their first journey abroad together. Three decades younger, Jan and Annemieke are taking their last, as illness and incompatibility bring their unhappy union to an end. At first the luxury of Caribbean resort is no match for the well-worn patterns of domestic life. Then the couples'

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Overview

After more than half a century of marriage, Dorothy and George are embarking on their first journey abroad together. Three decades younger, Jan and Annemieke are taking their last, as illness and incompatibility bring their unhappy union to an end. At first the luxury of Caribbean resort is no match for the well-worn patterns of domestic life. Then the couples' paths cross, and a series of surprises ensues—a disappearance and an assault, most dramatically, but also a teapot tempest of passions, slights, misunderstandings, and small awakenings that punctuate a week in which each pair struggles to come to terms with what's been keeping them apart.
Becoming Strangers is a different kind of love story, in which there's seldom a "happily ever after" but sometimes a chance to redeem a life half-lived.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
What keeps an unhappily married couple together? In her impressive debut, long-listed for the 2004 Man Booker, Dean dissects two hollow unions against the sultry backdrop of a Caribbean resort. George and Dorothy Davis, an English couple married more than 50 years, are worn down by neglect and boredom; Jan and Annemieke de Groot, Belgians married 31 years, are pulled apart by Jan's terminal cancer, which exposes issues they've suppressed for years. Dean is at her best in interior moments, when characters ponder their lives with private, brutal candor. "This was how they had always been," Annemieke reflects on her marriage, "his illness had simply developed the difference between them as light develops photographic film." As for George and Dorothy, they seem awfully reminiscent of Edward Albee's spiteful George and Martha. "You couldn't tell him that there was any marriage that wasn't equal measures love and hate," George Davis reflects, who decides bitterly that his wife now "wasn't content to have the last word; she had to have it twice." On holiday, friendships form, affairs spark and revelations startle. Adept at sharp dialogue and brisk plotting, Dean is also attentive to character development, choosing authenticity over sentimentality in a book that is poignant, often funny and unexpectedly redemptive. (Jan.) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Caribbean resorts bring together all manner of people in all stages and conditions of life. Dean's debut, which won the Betty Trask Award, tells the tale of two such vacationing couples: George and Dorothy, who have never before in their 50-year marriage been abroad on holiday and try to ignore the growing certainty of Dorothy's Alzheimer's disease; and midlifers Jan and Annemieke, who have traveled worldwide and take this as their last joint getaway (Jan is dying from cancer). Jan and George strike up an acquaintance only to find that their wives dislike each other. A group of pretentious Americans absorb Annemieke, while Jan, George, and Dorothy connect with a different group. The week goes from bad to worse when Dorothy goes missing, and Annemieke claims she has been raped by a hotel employee. When the vacation finally comes to an end, everyone goes home much altered. This rich story, replete with well-drawn characters, is not a happy one, but it is a masterpiece about the human condition that will rile the reader's emotions. Recommended. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 9/1/05.]-Joanna M. Burkhardt, Univ. of Rhode Island Coll. of Continuing Education Lib., Providence Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Tourists at a fancy hotel on an unidentified Caribbean island find their vacation package includes the specter of death as well as skinny-dipping and anonymous sex. Among the vacationing couples in Dean's debut novel, which was long-listed for the 2004 Man Booker Prize, are Belgians Jan and Annemieke. Jan has been fighting cancer for six years; it is now terminal. He's hoping for a reconciliation with his wife at the end of their long, rocky marriage, but Annemieke is more interested in self-gratification. She initiates sex with an unattractive guy named Bill in the massage room and later offers Adam, an English staff member, $150 for sex in her bedroom; she's 49 and feels opportunity slipping away. The British George and Dorothy Davis are much older; he's 79, she's 82. The old-timers bicker constantly, so it's a surprise when George later says Dorothy is "a good 'un. A pal," and more of a surprise to learn that she has Alzheimer's. In one of the novel's two main episodes, she wanders off dazedly into the countryside. After she's retrieved, she still manages to pull off plenty of one-liners. The other episode concerns Adam, Annemieke's stud. After he's serviced her, she cries rape, and things look bad for the Brit until her earlier fling is revealed. That's the action, such as it is, but Dean squeezes in several monologues. George confesses to cheating on Dorothy; Jan reveals "a brush with evil" in Belize; and Bill talks of his alcoholism and how it drove his wife to suicide before he turned to God. These monologues are more convincing than are the minor characters, especially the beautiful Chinese woman who wants Jan to elope with her to Paris (where else?) and swear unconditional loveas he dies in her arms. Dean's grasp of the material is shaky and her voice erratic.
From the Publisher
PRAISE FOR BECOMING STRANGERS

 
"Breathtaking . . . Dean crafts a gut-wrenching tale of marital recklessness and guilt that is reminiscent of John Updike at his most masterful . . . Becoming Strangers is poignant, authentic, funny and extraordinary. For Dean, it marks the beginning of what promises to be a spectacular career."—San Francisco Chronicle

"Dean peels back the skin of these marriages with an unflinching lack of sentimentality and an immense talent for close observation and evocative, often poetic detail. She can reach straight into a character’s heart . . . The ending is unexpected, yet entirely deserved. Dean has produced an ideal novel."—The Atlantic Monthly

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780786270446
Publisher:
Gale Group
Publication date:
01/28/2004
Pages:
339
Product dimensions:
5.40(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.90(d)

Read an Excerpt

Before he'd had cancer he'd been bored with life. Since he'd taken dying seriously, he'd been busy; he was occupied with understanding the disease and training his body to resist it. How hardy he was, physically. Six years of operations and excisions, starting with his chest, then the cancerous cells had metastasized to his lungs and on to his liver. A suite of initial excisions revealed each encampment to be partially malignant. He'd insisted on warfare. Each time the doctors told him and his family the chances of recovery were poor and the recurrence of cancer a likelihood. Year after year a fresh crop of cells emerged, excisions followed and he lived. The knife-and-forking of his body seemed to give a perverse impetus to his will to survive.

His tenacious hold on life was partly begotten by the conviction that his life must have accrued some value over time. What about all the sights and sounds recorded, all those thoughts tracked? They must be worth something. They must add up to some meaning. Billions of words over the years ordered into a handful of simple notions. His mother! His country! Right and wrong!

He gave up work. He took to reading. Politics, philosophy, biographies.

An exploratory probe of his pancreas had revealed further metastasis just two weeks previously. They could not operate again, they said. He shook the doctor's right hand with both of his hands and nodded. Later that evening, he overheard his wife sharing the news over the phone, from the study, door closed. 'He's ridden with it. They can't do anything for him now,' Annemieke said.

About three days later, their two adult sons had come by with the tickets for two weeks in paradise, a hotel spa resort on a Caribbean island. Very exclusive. Very final. He'd shaken their hands with both of his and nodded. Annemieke had kissed them.

'He's getting weak,' she had said, looking at her husband. 'The travelling won't be so easy. But I am strong enough for us both,' she'd added, then excused herself to answer the phone.

He had sat with his boys, holding the gift card between his fingers, pursing his lips, stroking his moustache, murmuring in bass tones, weighing reason as he listened to their news. The older boy was running his own Internet search business, the other finishing a PhD in philosophy at the University of Brussels. He tried to see them as real people.

Meanwhile, he could hear snatches of his wife's excitable conversation in the other room.

'Afterwards,' she was saying repeatedly and with emphasis.

He read the gift card again. The instruction was, 'Vermaak jullie!' ('Enjoy yourselves!'), the implication that once that was done, he could come back and die properly.

This was going to be their last holiday. They had had a few last holidays previously, but this was going to be truly final. His wife's way of confirming this was to remind him now, on the aeroplane, that they had had some good times during their thirty-one years of marriage. She sighed from time to time as she turned the pages of her magazine before setting it aside.

'So many things,' she said to him, resting her jaw on her palm and looking into his face, 'and so empty, so meaningless.'

He agreed without looking at her.

'Very nice, very well made, but next year it is finished and if you are going to spend so much on something . . . oh, it just drives me crazy.'

Removing peanut matter from a back tooth, mindful of her lipstick-she was an attractive woman-and taking a last swig of her gin and tonic, she told him that she had calculated they had had over forty holidays during their marriage. She handed the plastic glass, small bottle and tonic can to the flight attendant. The peanut packet she had rolled up and inserted into the can's opening.

He thought of paperbacks, triangular-heaped, wet and spineless by poolsides and of shellfish detritus left on dinner plates, pink and drying. He thought of the night-time efforts to kick away tucked-in white sheets. Hotels, hospitals-both had required from him a degree of submission. His wife did not submit. Her chin was hard. She used it to conclude her sentences. Her eyes sparkled. If she was pragmatic then she had reason to be. Initially he'd been given six months to live; he'd taken six years so far. It had caused her to be severe.

'Six, nearly seven years of lucidity,' Jan thought, catching her eye and looking quickly away, 'clarity come upon me like the word of God.'

'Excuse me,' he said, as his elbow knocked hers off the central armrest by mistake. He had confirmed his belief, hospital stay after hospital stay, that human relations were best conducted courteously; he was thankful for good manners. The existence of love, unconditional love, he doubted. He even wondered about his children. He had no idea whether he was ready to die; it didn't come in degrees after all, allowing one to get accustomed to it. Death was a binary affair, not cumulative. On/off. The starter pistol fired not a second before it fired.

Now, with the 'fasten seatbelts' lights illuminated and his wife tucking a spare miniature vodka into the pouch in front of her, he reminded himself of his resolve to make it up to her. He barely knew her and he had gone to a great deal of trouble to know her less in the last few years. It was reasonable to think that neither of them was entirely to blame and it was possible, even now, that they might quit each other as friends. That was what he hoped this holiday was for; he hadn't told her as much, but he assumed she felt the same way. Given that he was, in fact, dying now.

To his left, he saw a segment of fellow Northern Europeans squinting and wincing at the sudden sheath of equatorial sunlight. He reached across his wife and with a neat action, using his forefinger and thumb, raised the shade over their window.

Copyright © Louise Dean, 2004

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Harcourt, Inc., 6277 Sea Harbor Drive, Orlando, Florida 32887-6777.

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