The Rocks by Peter Nichols is being marketed as a literary summer beach book. Its cover is reminiscent of Jess Walters’ summery, exotic Beautiful Ruins, and I found it on a table labeled, “Hot Summer Reads!” at my local bookstore.
It is true that the island setting of Mallorca is a “character” in this book. You can’t help but feel heat on your skin and the smell of lemons in the air, and Nichols peppers his writing with different languages and dialects. So get ready to be transported if you pick this one up for your Labor Day vacation.
However, unlike last year’s books about tourists behaving badly on Mallorca (The Vacationers by Emma Straub and The Lemon Grove by Helen Walsh), this book is about enduring misunderstandings and betrayal. And the setting, which figures so prominently, is part of the betrayal, as newcomers and developers change the landscape and the lives of the longtime residents.
The story is told in reverse. The novel starts with Lulu and Gerald, octogenarians who divorced long ago, seeing each other for the first time in decades. As they begin this strained encounter, an accident happens. The reader follows the couple and their children in sections that move backward through time, looking for the answer to the question of what happened to drive the couple apart.
There is more, however. The story is also about impossible journeys (Gerald once wrote a novel about seafaring and trying to create a geography of Homer’s The Odyssey) and how hard it is to create a home (The Rocks is a hotel that Lulu runs, and it is also a borrowed home for expats). It is about heroism and victimization. It is about revenge. So while the sun shines throughout this book, the territory is dark and complicated.
I have seen reviews where readers have been put off by Nichols’ portrayal of women in this novel. And it is true that many of the female characters are either mysterious in an unpleasant way or sexually predatory. (Note: the “ick factor” is somewhat high in some of the scenes). A New York Times reviewer revealed the semi-autobiographical elements of this novel, and it seems as if the author’s real life experience with relationships being “on the rocks” might have influenced how he built the relationships in the novel. I actually found characters of both sexes kind of off-putting (with many of the men being either smarmy or limp). Gerald and his son are definitely the most well-drawn characters, and I definitely lived in them.
This made me think about the construction gender in novels, especially in literary novels. I don’t think that readers would comment about thin or negative portrayals of women in mass market thrillers, because they’re so common. But do readers have different expectations of literary fiction? Do we have different expectations of novels that are about relationships than we do for spy novels?
As for me, I noted the gender issues in this novel, but I was still carried away by the good writing, by the novel’s compelling structure, and yes, by the setting. I don’t know that I’d call this a “Hot Summer Read!” but I am glad I experienced it. As a side note, I am almost – but not quite – moved to re-read The Odyssey, which was assigned as required summer reading for tenth graders when I was in high school. I wonder if Homer was on the "Hot Summer Reads!" table, too.
You can find an interview with the author here (spoilers included).