I have two summer holiday traditions when it comes to reading – tackling one really big book (because if I get engrossed I can block out the day for reading), and a short story collection or two (because I can read and doze and not lose track of where I’m at). Which is why I selected The American Lover by Rose Tremain.
I think of Tremain as a short-story-master and this collection didn’t disappoint. The theme of loneliness, or rather loners, runs through the collection. There’s regrets, ‘could-have-beens’, unfulfilled wishes and compromises – all written about in Tremain’s precise style.
Four stories stood out –
- Extra Geography – with the lacrosse season over and time to kill, two school girls decide they need a ‘project’ and that project is to fall in love with the next person who walks by – it happens to be their geography teacher, an unassuming woman from New Zealand. The opening description of the girls’ superior lacrosse skills is priceless ‘…our own forwards would prance up, neighing for the ball…’ and the tongue-in-cheek melodrama continues from there.
- A View of Lake Superior in the Fall – a retired couple run away from their free-loading daughter to take up residence at their lakeside cabin, only to find themselves beholden in a different way. Do you know any couples who are so ‘in love’ that they exclude their children? It’s an interesting dynamic and Tremain’s take on how that plays out when the child becomes an adult is fabulous.
- The Jester of Astapovo – the story of Leo Tolstoy’s final hours (which I knew nothing about until this story). And those hours were dramatic – Tolstoy had left his wife, the overbearing Countess Sophie, but was forced to stop at a train station in a remote corner of Russia. The stationmaster, Ivan Ozolin, is at crossroads in his own life and sees the great Tolstoy dying in his bed as a sign – ‘And it was at this moment that Ivan discovered the role that destiny had kept up its sleeve. He was going to be Leo Tolstoy’s bodyguard.’
- 21st Century Juliet – although a departure from Tremain’s usual style, I couldn’t resist Juliet’s diary account of her love affairs – she’s a Sloane-ranger who, to save the family estate, is set to marry a rich aristocrat. Only, she’s entangled with a Serbian construction worker. It’s Made in Chelsea meets Bridget Jones and there are two delightfully dark twists that make it the perfect closer for the collection.
4/5 Ever reliable.
‘Trains come and go, come and go past my door day and night, but I live without moving.’
The Russian stationmaster, Ivan, feeds Tolstoy’s entourage cinnamon cake.