Tainted love


Maheen Pracha July 29, 2010

Naomi Alderman’s The Lessons is not a love story as much as a story about the very worst sort of love — gloriously addictive, obsessive, self-destructive love. It opens in Italy: James Stieff comes home to find the pool filled with food and his lover Mark, yet again, up to his eyebrows in drugs and alcohol. For James, who has evidently nursed Mark through a string of similar binges, how have things come to this?

The reel rewinds: James, newly inducted into the arcane world of Oxford undergraduate-dom is finding his first term positively miserable. This is by no means the Oxford he had expected, the “Oxford [that] would paint me with a thin layer of gold.” Instead of making friends with the rich and privileged and breezing through his academic work in happy anticipation of a First, he is lonely, friendless, and struggling to keep up with his fellow physicists. Moreover, he sustains a bad fall while out running one winter morning, which leaves his knee shattered and the remnants of his ego all but finished. This changes when he meets Jess, an undergraduate musician, who introduces him to her circle of extraordinary friends — extraordinary that is, to the lonely James.

Alderman initially etches her characters with a well-practiced hand — Jess, James’s girlfriend, kind, organised, and honest; Franny, intellectual and witty, at odds with her own Jewishness; Simon, Franny’s friend and occasional lover, and Emmanuella, Spanish and perhaps therefore predictably exotic. At the centre of the group is Mark Winters, a Sebastian Flyte for the 1980s, mercurial, lavish, and desperately lonely. Extremely wealthy, he persuades his circle of friends to come and live with him in a crumbling old Georgian mansion in a secret pocket of Oxford, where they have spent many a night drinking, laughing, and making love. They quickly grow used to Mark bringing home a string of sexual partners (on one occasion, Franny’s politics tutor). Anything goes, for it is Mark’s seemingly bottomless trust fund that is paying for it all. But not all is well in this halcyon world. Mark’s homosexuality causes friction with his traditional Italian mother and with his love of the Catholic Church. A pot-bellied Catholic priest — a family friend of Mark’s — hints at an earlier breakdown and asks James to keep an eye out for his friend, whose behaviour becomes ever more erratic as their Oxford days draw to an end.

Ultimately, their charmed life proves poor training for the world outside. After graduation splits the group, James and Jess find a flat together in London, each pursuing their own careers. But an unexpected sexual encounter with Mark has left James dangerously ambivalent in his feelings towards his friend. Mark shocks them all when, a few years after university, he marries Simon’s 17-year-old sister Nicola even while his secret affair with James continues. When tragedy strikes, it becomes a vortex from which Mark cannot escape and into which James finds himself helplessly drawn.

Alderman is very good at describing the arcana and intensity of Oxford life. But her characters fade, becoming wooden, once they graduate. Simon is stripped of whatever charm he had once removed from Oxford, and Franny becomes unexpectedly erratic. Emmanuella is possibly the least interesting of the circle and is deadweight to much of the plot. Mark’s mother, Isabella, provides comic relief at the outset of her arrival but fades away as the story progresses. Alderman also struggles with the significance of the themes she tackles — the Catholic religion’s deep hold on Mark is never really explained. Nonetheless, The Lessons is well-plotted and makes for a thoroughly enjoyable read.

Published in The Express Tribune, July 24th, 2010.

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