Spending time with people you dislike can be extremely difficult, especially if they specialize in whining about how tough life has been for them. Constance is such a character, a woman who perpetually looks at the half of the glass she doesn’t have. She goes beyond that: Beneath her sophisticated, successful façade is a woman who enjoys making life as difficult for herself and those around her as possible. This did not make for a pleasant reading experience.
The story opens in London, 1963 when two teens stumble across a baby in a bag. The police are called, the proper steps taken and the baby put in a foundling home. Before sending her into her uncertain future the hospital names her Constance, a name she shares with the street she was found on.
We cut to almost 40 years later, to the island of Bali. Constance has made her home here for several years as she nurses a somewhat broken heart. She had fallen in love with her sister’s husband and in the end he had chosen to stay with his wife. Her self-imposed exile from the western world has meant a sort of slow healing for her. She is fortunate in that the advertising work she handles can normally be done by internet, providing her with a solid living. Today marks an unusual occurrence as her island home is invaded by folks from her previous life in London advertising. Constance is providing the music in an advertisement that places a Western bride, complete with white dress, into a traditional Bali wedding. Things go well and the producers are convinced they have a hit on their hands. They leave, encouraging her to return to England and work with them more. She smiles but stays put. Constance slowly settles back into her life on the island and it is only when she powers up her computer to get back in touch with the Western world that she sees her sister’s email. Jeanette is dying. Constance arranges to head back to London immediately.
Noah, Jeanette’s son, is not yet aware of the serious nature of his mother’s illness when he leaves the hospital and chats up a lovely girl on the London streets. He learns her name is Roxana and that she is from Uzbekistan but desperately wants to become an English girl. He convinces her to have a drink with him but realizes when she leaves afterward that he will probably never see her again. He is thrilled and delighted to be proven wrong several weeks later when she calls looking for a place to stay. He eagerly invites her into his home.
Noah, Jeanette, Jeanette’s husband Bill, Roxana and Constance all weave together as Jeanette’s life begins to unfurl. For Jeanette, it is a time of reflection and reconciliation. She is glad to have her sister, the one person who was there almost from the beginning, here for the end of her life. It seems an appropriate closure to her. For Noah, his mother’s passing comes at a time when his adult life is at its beginning. He mourns the loss he will have but can’t help but look to the future and Roxanne. Roxanne has faced loss before and is not quite ready to eagerly move into the future with Noah. And Connie and Bill each mourn what the loss of Jeanette will mean – but they are also aware that it might signal a new beginning for them.
This story is told partially in the present and partially in flashbacks and memories. The flashbacks and memories reveal Constance as a young girl who always wants what others have and who is rarely at peace or satisfied. She is difficult and willful and loves to make a scene. As the author explains one of these moments, “She was overtaken by an irresistible impulse not to be patronized by Uncle Geoff, not to do what was routinely expected of her, and most of all not to place herself next to Jeanette in Bill’s eyes.” These impulses pretty much make up Constance’s life. Later when talking to her sister, Jeanette points out, “You were terrible. What were you so cross about?” “About not being you of course,” Constance answers. So jealousy for her older sister, who is deaf, pretty much defines who Constance is as a person.
I couldn’t help thinking that jealousy is where the so-called love for Bill comes from. Her sister has him and like the bedroom Constance had fought for and didn’t get, he becomes an object of envy in her twisted battle with Jeanette. The book says of the affair “From their first evening together after the Dockland’s party they both knew there was no hope of a happy ending. It was even true that to be stalked by the twin threats of imminent discovery and impending pain gave an extra edge to their temporary ecstasy.” That sounds very like our heroine, who loved the high she got from causing catastrophe around her.
Roxana and Noah sort of made me shudder. The way he opened his home to a girl off the streets who works in a strip club had me wondering just what level of stupid he was. I also found it ridiculous that Roxana felt that the relationship she had with him was different than the one she had with the men she gave lap dances to. In that case she did a straight cash transaction for the fantasy of intimacy she provided. With Noah, she traded emotional intimacy as well as the physical for better living arrangements. One was dressed up prettier but I never got the feeling that if Noah had been on the streets like her, desperate for money and a place to live, she would have shared a cardboard box with him. His wealth and the safety net it provided was his attraction.
I think I might have been more forgiving of the story if the author didn’t seem to glory in the mediocrity of her main characters. Noah’s stupidity, Roxana’s use of others to propel herself forward, and Constance’s endless, horrible selfishness were all seen as something worthy of deep interest. To me, there was no growth, no personal emotional wisdom gained after a hard struggle. There was, one could argue, some change. Jeanette’s impending death makes life easier for Bill and Constance. Constance can finally embrace her sister because chances are she will have everything she wants just from Jeanette’s dying. We see a generous, gracious side come out as she opens her home to Noah’s friend. I couldn’t accept this as a true gift, though. I had a feeling Constance was buying her way into the family, showing what a good aunt/stepmom she will be to her nephew in the future if he can forgive her the past. That, for me, was the most difficult part of all.
One of the main reasons I picked the book was for location but I didn’t really get a feel for Bali. It was hot. There were native flowers. The people had lots of celebrations but in the end a party is a party – food, people, music. What we saw of Bali was a travel channel special with none of the charm of having Anthony Bourdain along.
So, pretty much everything about this novel was a bust for me. The writing style wasn’t bad but that doesn’t make up for spending a ton of time with a whiney heroine in a rambling plot. The publisher of this novel is Overlook. I couldn’t help wishing about a fourth of the way through this that I had “overlooked” it on the reading list. Take that fact as a definite recommendation to avoid it.