Review: The Lemon Grove by Helen Walsh

Slinky, sensuous and sexy are just a few of the words used to describe Helen Walsh’s The Lemon Grove, set in a hot summer week in a small town in Mallorca.

So now that the novel has come out in paperback (it was released in hardback in the dead of winter), and the weather is hot and humid, I figured it was the perfect time to read this book.

Every summer Jenn and her husband Greg holiday in Deia. This year, Jenn’s stepdaughter Emma brings her boyfriend Nathan with her. Caught off-guard, Jenn finds herself attracted to Nathan, an attraction that could lead the whole family into chaos.

Let me say from the beginning that I was a little wary of reading this book, just because I wasn’t sure how comfortable I would be reading about a middle-aged woman in lust with an 18-year-old boy, but The Lemon Grove is about so much more than forbidden attraction. Sure, there were a few scenes that made me cringe, but they were the ones where Jenn’s attraction for Nathan went into overdrive, turning into obsession, and a dangerous obsession at that.

Jenn starts the novel as a rational human being, but ends it as a liar, a cheat and a thoroughly confused woman. Her attraction to Nathan also brings out all the long-suffering resentment she feels towards Greg – who she feels tries to mould her into something she’s not – and towards Emma – who she feels gets everything her way. Jenn’s relationship with the latter is particularly interesting, and for me any scenes between them, or where Jenn was thinking or talking about Emma, were the best of the book. That Jenn, a woman who has brought up Emma as her own, feels jealous of and resentful of her daughter is both taboo (as much as being attracted to an 18-year-old who is going out with your daughter) and, as we get glimpses of Greg, Jenn and Emma’s family life, understandable at times.

Nathan, who elicits such lust in Jenn and such devotion in Emma, also manages to get Greg’s hackles up, and I have to say, I’m with Greg on this. From the outside looking in, it’s easy to see Nathan’s faults, guess at his misdemeanours and assess just how much of a selfish brat he is (sorry to be so blunt). In one way, it’s difficult to see why Jenn is so attracted to Nathan, but in another it’s not – for Jenn he’s escape and revenge wrapped up in one person, and he makes her feel that she is powerful and powerless, both of which she seems to thrive on, even if she’s not enjoying it.

The thing that Walsh is the best at, in my opinion, is creating a sense of place. From the beginning of the novel I could feel the heat of Deia, picture the town and its surrounding mountain roads, and almost smell the sea. The setting wraps itself around the action of the novel, and soon becomes stifling for the characters, who find it difficult to live up to the beauty of their surroundings.

The novel builds to its finale in the same way the heat of the novel builds, slowly and in layers before breaking and cooling. I enjoyed the first ending to the book, but Walsh adds in a twist in the final few paragraphs, which I personally thought was unnecessary – I feel like so many novels I read nowadays with slightly unlikeable characters and slightly unreliable narrators like to add in that final “ta-da” moment, and sometimes it’s not needed. I felt that was the case here, but it’s only a small point, and a personal preference.

The Lemon Grove is worth reading for Walsh’s descriptive talent alone, but it’s also one of those novels that is perfect for summer.

How I got this book: From the publisher, Tinder Press. This did not affect my review.

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