Grief is common, which might be the saddest thing about it. In Vendela Vida’s third novel, The Lovers, a widow named Yvonne returns to Turkey—to Datça, the village near where she honeymooned with her husband Peter—searching for some kind of reprieve from her mourning. Surprising herself, she unloads the tale of her spouse’s car crash onto the kind of quick friends tourists make when thrown together on day-trips in boats. Unsurprisingly, the confessional act leaves her feeling drained and unsatisfied by her companions’ response. She admits to herself, “She knew she wouldn’t tell the story of Peter’s death again. No response was adequate. The funeral should have taught her that.”
As a novel about grief, The Lovers is similar to those common, well-intentioned gestures that leave mourners feeling no less empty than before their sitting rooms were filled with flowers. It yearns to say something new about death (and loss and travel and motherhood), but heaps on so many awkward metaphors, it becomes difficult to distinguish between what’s meant to be meaningful and what's mere window-dressing. But like her protagonist, when something concrete threatens to appear (as when Yvonne ponders the notion of remarriage) Vida ends up “extinguishing the thought as she would a candle.”
In the house she rents, Yvonne is increasingly confounded by little, tension-building Hitchcockian discoveries: a dirty book, an erotic photo hidden beneath a couch, a hook in a ceiling intended for a sex toy, and, of course, a bird. The unintended turning point in the novel occurs when Yvonne is considering leaving for good, and Vida writes, “She could leave behind the owl and the sex swing, the book about anal sex, the twin bed.” It’s the kind of sentence that drops the curtain, announcing that whatever mysteries might be collecting to conspire into some restrained revelation have been abandoned. Sometimes an owl is just an owl; a sex swing is just a sex swing.
Everything thereafter—Yvonne befriending the young boy Ahmet, the hovering presence of a woman named Özlem, the quiet scorn of a few locals, and Yvonne’s impending meeting with her troubled daughter Aurelia—can only be viewed with a kind of sidelong suspicion. Is it significant that Yvonne is reading Marguerite Duras’ The Lover? Maybe. Is it important that she ends up in a town devoted to the memory of the poet Rumi? Maybe. This is Vida’s third novel that features a solitary heroine and begins with a sentence about time: “It was 2:15 in the afternoon of December 2… “(And Now You Can Go); “It was three in the afternoon when my plane landed at the Helsinki airport…” (Let The Northern Lights Erase Your Name); “When half an hour had passed and there was still no sign of a white Renault…” (The Lovers). Is this the last in a loosely linked trilogy? Maybe, maybe, maybe…