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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Lucy Atkins

Absolutely & Forever by Rose Tremain review – a lost first love

‘Rose Tremain has clearly mined her own adolescence to create an authentic upper-middle-class milieu.’
‘Rose Tremain has clearly mined her own adolescence to create an authentic upper-middle-class milieu.’ Photograph: Popperfoto/Getty Images

At one point in this slim coming-of-age novel, Rose Tremain’s 17th, the main character, Marianne, is accused by her husband, Hugo, of being “a bloody difficult person to like”. Marianne is genuinely perturbed. She married him more than 10 years before, when she was just 20. It is the early 1970s, Hugo runs a London auction house, and they are in Paris – Marianne has been patiently looking at model puppet theatres all day. She is doing her very best, she thinks. And it dawns on her, then, that her very best “resembled the antics of a stricken kind of creature, like a sick grey parrot in a cage”. Kind Hugo, an enormous, ginger-haired, horse-loving friend of the family, adores her. They still call each other by teenage nicknames, sparked by once dressing up together in shaggy fur coats: he is “Anthracite”, she “Yeti”. But as Marianne trails around the city, all she can think of is her first love, handsome Simon, who moved to Paris long ago.

The novel starts in the 1950s when Marianne is 15 and meets Simon at a Berkshire country house party. Tremain, now 80, has clearly mined her own adolescence to create an authentic upper-middle-class milieu of parties in rattling country houses where girls dance to Tommy Steele, drink cider cup, and pause for “cold collations” of chicken legs and coleslaw. Simon is a floppy-haired 18-year-old at Marlborough school, sitting his Oxford entrance exams. Marianne loses her virginity on the back seat of his baby-blue Morris Minor. Tremain isn’t often thought of as a funny writer, but she can be brilliantly wry. When Simon drives her home, Marianne’s father, an ex-army colonel, grills him about the little car. “Any bloody good, is it?” Simon mutters that it’s his first vehicle. “Feeble torque,” the Colonel huffs.

Back at her Hertfordshire girls’ boarding school, with its starched matrons and thermometers dipped in Dettol, Marianne’s obsession escalates. Tremain nails the fervent lunacy of adolescent love. Marianne recalls the “intoxicating” smell of her post-coital knickers; she can’t eat or focus, sees letters formed by his tiny handwriting as “angels” on the page. “I’d lost control,” she realises, wildly. She tells Simon she’ll always love him: “Absolutely and forever.”

But by age 19, in 1963, Marianne is at a Kensington secretarial college. London life is anything but swinging. She is lonely and miserable, pining for Simon; her skin erupts. On Kings Road, she passes women in “tiny little slanty boxes for skirts”, “lone gazelles” with candy-pink lips, and men with “soft manes”. She has a fling with one; he says she is “a lousy fuck”. She has only one schoolfriend, a Scottish girl called Pet who is warm and funny. When Marianne marries Hugo, Pet is studying sociology at Essex University. Pet’s feminist political awakening, a “life of purpose”, is a powerful contrast to Marianne’s directionless, caged-up domesticity.

More than a decade later, staring at Parisian puppets, Marianne really has become a sick parrot. She has survived a devastating personal experience and is, she realises, “in the process of turning into my mother”: not ideal since Lavender is cold and remote, deliberately losing at Scrabble to protect the Colonel’s ego and incapable of emotional engagement with her floundering only child. The Colonel is no better. Red-nosed, brandy-quaffing, he blithely refers to Marianne’s first love as “some malarkey”. In less skilled hands, the couple would be ghastly caricatures but Tremain, whose many accolades include a Booker prize shortlisting (Restoration, 1989) and a Women’s prize win (The Road Home, 2008), is far too subtle for that. She draws a moving and nonjudgmental portrait of their old-fashioned Englishness; their co-dependence and wilful blindness to economic realities; their clueless parenting. Towards the end, when one lies in a hospital bed, the other’s untethered agony is incredibly touching.

Absolutely & Forever is an engrossing character study. Marianne is infuriating, unconfident and immature, but also honest, sweet and lost. Gradually, her eccentricity evolves into something interesting, more complex, perhaps creatively important. There is a deceptive simplicity to all this. On one level, the novel is a mild and straightforward period drama about self-realisation. But it is also a study in tolerance and kindness, and as such is more relevant to today’s reader than it might first seem. It is possible to break out of a grim parrot cage, Tremain says, without damaging, or damning, those who put you there. None of this is earth-shattering, but at its best the novel is witty, thoughtful and humane, offering delicate and thoughtful pleasures.

Absolutely & Forever by Rose Tremain is published by Chatto & Windus (£16.99). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at Delivery charges may apply.

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