There’s a lot to like about this short novel by Sarah Salway. It plays with unreliable narrators and tells its story entirely through emails, letters, and voice mail messages. Interestingly, its main character is deceased at the time the story begins.
Some time in the 60s, Maureen goes with a friend of hers to a photography studio that specializes in the “sweetheart” photo – where the woman gets a sexy nude or mostly nude picture of herself. Martin enjoys making women feel sexy and attractive. And he feels an instant attraction to Maureen, who refuses to take her clothes off at all. But she’s married and has a child, and decides to stay with her husband.
Fast forward about 40 years, after Maureen has recently died and her husband George lives in a senior care facility. Martin checks himself into the facility so he can get to know George, the husband he lost out to. He continues to write letters to Maureen, which he keeps in a shoebox below his bed:
And then, daft old fool that I am, I started to cry, thinking how you and I had never danced. And probably you never danced without me either, stuck with that dry stick of a husband of yours. How much did we miss, love, by not being together?
It’s a cool concept and it mostly works, as we get to know Maureen through her husband, her two children, her granddaughter, and Martin. We also get a glimpse into this semi-dysfunctional family, as well as the “family” that lives in the senior home, in a story that unfolds gradually and with much feeling. There’s a sinister underpinning to all this family interaction, but I won’t tell you more.
This was an enjoyable read and it mostly worked, although not all of it. The greatest weakness in this book is the storyline about younger daughter Angie, who fled her family years ago and now lives in Paris and has a rather odd relationship with at least one controlling man. Her story about her estrangement with her mother doesn’t seem entirely realistic or maybe it’s just not thought through enough. Also, while Salway creates this really dark story, I felt like the conflict was resolved too abruptly and didn’t all completely make sense.
Still, it’s an oddly chilling story that will definitely keep you reading, and it’s got endearing and interesting characters like George’s good friend Florence. I was fascinated by George, as I always am by people who are (at best) socially awkward. He loves his family but has no idea how to reach out to them, leaving you to wonder what his marriage must have been like. I was also fascinating by the idea of “boudoir” photographs and how they make women feel about themselves.
It’s hard to write about this book because I don’t want to tell you too much. I like books where the story unfolds gradually as this one did. I also like a story that raises questions about how well anyone knows their parents, their siblings, or their children. I just wish some aspects of the story had worked better.
Note: I received a complimentary copy of this novel from publisher Dean Street Press in exchange for an honest review.