Jennifer Sterling, the perfectly-put-together wife of a wealthy industrialist, begins a sort of romance with someone whom she now knows only as B. This is because a car accident has rendered her without any memory of the time preceding it, something known as retrograde amnesia - not uncommon with a serious head injury. Everyone around her is curiously cagey about the exact events of the accident, and Jennifer can recall nothing - not how she dressed, not the name of her housekeeper, nor how she formerly behaved toward her, nor the nickname she had for her husband. Nada. Love letters begin turning up in the dresser drawers she is told are her's and in books that she finds on her shelves. This device isn't just a cute way to jazz up a romance, Moyes has created with it a woman whose whole life is literally an utter mystery to herself. She has found a way to externalize this experience many people have of waking up and wonder just how they ended up with the kind of life they did.
It is interesting that Jennifer awakes with so little memory of the details of her life, but with such a clear sense of who she feels like. That sense we might call character. I haven't yet experienced a patient who becomes suddenly amnestic, so I don't know what that can be like, but as Jennifer discovers the flawless, socially calculating creature of leisure she was, she seems to despise this former self. And as the love letters turn up, she is determined to know who B was and what they felt for each other. Moyes also creates with this device someone who gets the chance to decide what kind of person they will be.
The vestiges of Jennifer's former life are only available to her by report, or traceable in the clues left in the clothing and posessions that she knows to be her's, but only because they can be found in her closet or her drawers. Now she can make a choice. Will she re-inhabit her old role, learning her lines and her behavior from the clues left behind? Or will she follow the niggling suspicion that these don't truly belong to the person she feels like and chose a new road? The chapters of the first half of the novel flip back and forth between pre- and post-accident so that we uncover the truth slowly. Moyes's has a good feel for 1960s detail and she can write a scene with dialogue with great wit and verisimilitude:
Her hair fell from her head like paint from a pot, in a sheet of silky blond ripples that ended just above her shoulders. Not his normal type. He liked less conventionally pretty women, those with a hint of something darker, whose charms were less obvious to the eye. "Aren't you drinking?"Literary references, sexual frisson, and then that lady with her dog strides through the room. Good writing. Writing you could transfer right to the screen, and I don't mean that the book is necessarily angling for that. But when Moyes writes dialogue, it is fresh and clever and feels like it would fall from the mouths of the characters with whom we have been made acquainted. Much more happens in the 1960s half of the book, but Moyes structures what would otherwise be a romance in such a way that there is a good deal of page-turning pressure. This reader wanted to know what would happen next, so if you're drawn to this kind of story, I don't want to spoil the fun of it for you.
He looked at his glass. "I'm not really meant to."
"Ex-wife," he corrected. "And no, doctor's"
"So you really did find last night unbearable."
He shrugged. "I don't spend much time in society."
"An accidental tourist."
"I admit it. I find armed conflict a less daunting prospect."
Her smile, when it came this time, was slow and mischievous. "So you're William Boot," she said. "Our of your depth in the war zone of Riviera society."
"Boot..." At the mention of Evelyn Waugh's hapless fictional character, he found himself smiling properly for the first time that day. "I suppose you could legitimately have said much worse."
A woman entered the restaurant, clutching a button-eyed dog to her vast bosom. She walked through the tables with a kind of weary determination, as if she could allow herself to focus on nothing but where she was headed. When she sat down at an empty table, a few seats away from them, it was with a little sigh of relief. She placed the dog on the floor, where it stood, its tail clamped between its legs, trembling.
"So, Mrs. Stirling - "
"Jennifer. Tell me about yourself," he said, leaning forward over the table.
"You're meant to be telling me. Showing me, in fact."
"That you're not a complete ass. I do believe you gave yourself half an hour."
"Ah. How long have I got left?"
She checked her watch. "About nine minutes."
Cut to 2003, Ellie, a contemporary journalist with work problems, relationship problems, let's just say she's lost the sense of who she is too, though not because of amnesia, discovers one of the love letters and is driven to know who the players were and, like us, what the heck happened. This more-or-less contemporary section of the book also has a very good sense of the social zeitgeist and about the machinations some of us go through to keep our calendars full but our lives empty.
Moyes also poses a rather topical question - if a hungry journalist gains possession of private love letters which would be the fodder for a brilliant story that could save her life, or her career anyway, should she go to press with it or protect the privacy of innocent people? Given the American release of this novel about 10 days ago, could the Murdoch hacking scandal make it any more topical? In fact, one of the reasons that Moyes's book is more than a light romance is because of the way questions of responsibility toward others keeps arising. In the realm of personal relationships, in the realm of business, and in the business of writing and reporting, the question of whether one should do what is best for oneself or whether one should consider the consequences of that choice for others becomes a refrain. It is this, Moyes's writing chops, and her talent for capturing the feel of a certain time and place, that make what would otherwise be a page-turning romance into more sophisticated fare. I wouldn't be at all surprised if someone optioned it for a film.
Got the book just now. Ordered it after reading your review. (2nd book I bought after reading your review - 1st was The Magicians :)
J - glad you felt inspired. I hope you enjoy it.
This would make a great movie. And a great time period to film You're totally right about the theme of personal responsibility for others running through this novel--why didn't I pick up on that?!
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