VENDELA VIDA WRITES thoughtful literary fiction that is easy to appreciate but hard to love. Her newest reads like an Anne Tyler novel as revised at the Iowa Writers' Workshop—a mannered, introspective novel about a woman, Yvonne, who takes a trip to Turkey after her husband's death. Returning to the town where they'd spent their honeymoon 28 years earlier, Yvonne hopes the trip will help her to reconnect with her memories of her husband—and with a younger, more adventurous version of herself. "Here she could remember how she was when she wasn't twisted up and selfish," Yvonne thinks. "Here, with Peter, she had been generous and world-welcoming. Here, with Peter, everything had been lovely." In reality, though, in the present where she finds herself, 28 years later, "this place, now, was not lovely."
Her enthusiasm for her vacation slowly, painfully dulls—the town is dirtier, more squalid than she remembers; an exuberant joyride results in damage to the car; the beautiful vacation home she's renting is marred by the discovery of a sex swing in a bedroom. The trip's one high point is an attachment she forms with a young boy she meets on the beach, though other locals—including the boy's grandmother, and a waiter who serves the two lunch—seem to find something inappropriate in their relationship. The prophecy proves self-fulfilling, and their friendship leads to what the jacket copy reveals as a "devastating accident" (it's not a spoiler if the dust jacket spills it!).
Vida's got a knack for articulating the mechanisms of grief, and the way that Yvonne describes her feelings—to herself and to others—feels authentic. The book moves with Yvonne as she processes her feelings about her husband and her adult children; her self-realization, when it comes, feels earned. The subgenre Vida is writing in—Americans journeying to other lands to learn things about themselves—is a tricky one, with considerable risk of exoticizing or romanticizing other cultures, but Vida dodges the predictable traps, and Yvonne's attempts to transform herself by exposure to exotic Turkey are bruising. So much about The Lovers is done well, but nothing about it surprises—its very proficiency distracted me from forming any real attachment to either Yvonne or the book itself.