by Louise Dean; Orlando, Florida, Harcourt Trade Publishers, 2006, 307 pages, $23
Dr. Renaud lives in Montreal, Quebec, Canada.
On the long list for the Man Booker Prize, Becoming Strangers is the first novel by Louise Dean. The story portrays the lives of two couples who meet during a holiday in the sun. Belgian and middle-aged, Jan is pugnaciously fighting a losing battle against cancer. This resistance of death is exasperating for his dutiful but impatient wife, Annemieke, who longs to be freed from him. Englishman George, still vivacious and looking younger than his eighties, is slowed down by his wife, Dorothy, who is inexorably sinking into the forgetfulness of Alzheimer's disease. These two couples socialize during a dream vacation at a Caribbean deluxe hotel, and each couple has been given this trip by their respective families.
Funny situations, in surprising and well-structured theatrical developments, should make this book easy and enjoyable to read, which it doesn't quite turn out to be. This may be because the theme is grave and sad, the tone sweet and sour and a bit cynical, while the focus is on marital relationships that have run out of love. Dean writes about older adults confronted by the passage of time, the failure of their marriage, and the necessity of choices about how to spend the rest of their lives. She also brings her readers to reflect on aging, the end of lust, the loss of capacities, the inability to fall in love again, the choice not to fall in love again, and finally, illness and dying.
This British author gives European flair to her characters, even though the setting is in the Caribbean where Americans are seen from a disdainful distance. The locals on this fictional island are the only ones who seem to live with grace. Their values and ways of life, despite their poverty, set up the principal characters, the existential despair caused by these characters' lack of sincerity, and their economic ambitions and their compromises.
Getting through this novel was indeed a bit like wishing to end a nightmarish holiday in order to return home to rain and routine. Dean must have succedeed in creating the perspective she wanted to achieve. She does so through her sharp writing skills, the realistic tone of the couples' private moments in the intimacy of their hotel rooms, the characters' soliloquies, and the depiction of complex and not-so-obvious secondary characters.