Becoming Strangers by Louise Dean

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Becoming Strangers by Louise Dean

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 3/5
Reviewer: Sue Magee
Reviewed by Sue Magee
Summary: Two couples, with one of each couple suffering serious illness, go on holiday in the Caribbean. The book explores how they deal with the issues which confront them. The author has potential, but this might be one to borrow from the library rather than buy.
Buy? No Borrow? Yes
Pages: 304 Date: January 2005
Publisher: Scribner
ISBN: 0743240006

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Recently I've found quite a few books where the book itself was far better than the cover would have led me to believe. I've got the reverse problem with "Becoming Strangers". Julie Myerson, the Guardian writer is quoted on the cover:

"There aren't many first-time novelists I'd dare to compare to Alan Bennett, but Louise Dean has his wicked yet empathetic eye, his ear for pathos, his almost supernatural talent for observing and measuring the comedy and tragedy of ordinary, heartfelt lives."

I was expecting something quite special. What I got was a good book and a sense of having been sold short. With a less-fulsome puff I might have felt more satisfied.

Jan and Annemieke are going on their last holiday. Jan has cancer and only a matter of a few weeks to live. Dorothy and George are going on one of their first holidays. Although much older than Jan and Annemieke, holidays have not been a feature of their married life. The holiday at a hotel in the Caribbean is a gift to each couple from their respective children. When they meet there's an immediate rapport between the two men, although their wives have nothing in common. In the course of the holiday all four make, or have made for them, life-changing decisions.

There's the basis there for a very good story, but I think more could have been made of it. The characters are interesting and they're in a setting which gives opportunity, but somehow it all rather petered out as the four went their separate ways. I couldn't really see why it all worked out the way it did, when it did.

The writing, though, is very good and the confident style makes for easy reading. I'd disagree with Julie Myerson that Louise Dean can be compared to Alan Bennett, although she has the knack of the clever phrase. Take, for instance, the opening lines:

"Before he'd had cancer he'd been bored with life. Since he'd taken dying seriously, he'd been busy; he was occupied with understanding the disease and training his body to resist it."

There's humour too and the ability to convey tragedy in a few understated words. What it doesn't seem to be there is the ability to paint relationships and this is where the comparison with Bennett falls down. There are two marriages under the microscope, both of quite long duration, but I'm left with no sense of why the couples were still together as they went on holiday despite their obvious differences. The author is relatively young and I wondered if she lacked the experience of, or insight into what glues a long-term relationship together.

Characterisation is good if a little patchy. Most striking for me was Annemieke, a sexually predatory woman with a complete lack of honesty. Jan, her husband, is more shadowy, but not lacking in his own form of courage. I was far from convinced by Dorothy, an elderly lady in the early stages of Alzheimer's disease. George, her husband, is well-painted as the gruff working man, slightly out of place in his surroundings. An interesting cameo was the hotel manager, Steve Burns - sharp, ambitious and entirely self-centred. I felt I knew him.

Dean does have an ear for dialogue and there were parts of the book that were laugh-out-load funny. On the other hand there are considerable chunks which are depressing. This is a writer with a great deal of potential and whilst I don't think it's been realised in this book, Louise Dean is someone to watch in the future.

There is no violence in the book but there are graphic sex scenes. After reading the book I was left with a strange feeling - that it would make an excellent book for a reading group to discuss, because of all the issues that it covers, but that it wasn't such a good book to read in isolation. I can't recollect another book where I've had the same thought.

If you like this type of book then you might enjoy Maggie O'Farrell's After You'd Gone. It's also a debut novel but the plotting is better and there's a surer touch with characterisation. You might also enjoy Bloodmining by Laura Wilkinson.

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maidmarion7 said:

Couldn't disagree more with above review.For apt enthusiatic reviews and increduality that this is a first novel see THE GUARDIAN, THE INDEPENDENT,and TIME OUT LONDON.Note prizes awarded to a novel about long marriages tested in a Carribean cruise of heart- breaking consequence and redemption of a bittersweet kind. I wept.