Penguin Books, $30.00,
Elizabeth Smither’s last novel was called Different Kinds of Pleasure, and its title offers a clue to the approach she takes in her fiction, and also to what she expects of her readers. Like her two most recent novels, Lola has a four-part structure – or perhaps that should be four movements, given the book’s musical references – which explores the preoccupations of its major characters, and announces itself with no-nonsense titles: “Undertakers”, “Hotels”, “Art Deco” and “String Quartet”. There will not be blood in this novel; there will be byways, and reveries and moments, characters who wander in briefly, rather than a driven, inexorable storyline.
Clearly this isn’t a Chuck Palahniuk novel. And despite the heroine’s sassy name, this isn’t cheeky chick lit, either: it’s a women’s novel in the way people used to talk about women’s pictures: A Letter to Three Wives, say, or something starring Joan Crawford or Barbara Stanwyck, perhaps, before all leading ladies were expected to be – or dress like – ingénues.
Lola, Smither’s protagonist, is a woman of a certain age, a woman concerned with sensuous pleasures rather than strong passions. Dining in a hotel, drawing a bath, sitting at a dressing table, noticing a snowy white napkin dropped on a parquet floor: these are the moments that Lola treasures, the moments where the author often chooses to linger.
When Charles, Lola’s love interest, starts rumbling about getting Viagra, she tries to dissuade him. When Luigi, her devoted admirer, suggests they all live together in platonic harmony in an Auckland suburb, Lola finds the idea quite appealing. Well-heeled and well-dressed, self-contained and reserved, Lola isn’t looking for love in all the wrong places. She’s looking for a different life, a reinvention, though the fact that she settles on Napier as her destination means the reader isn’t deluded – no walks on the wild side here, unless you count the stony and not-safe-for-swimming beach.
When the novel begins, Lola Dearborn is a widow, a New Zealander who’s spent most of her married life in Colac, Victoria. She’s living in a grace-and-favour apartment on the premises of the family business, Dearborn and Zander, Funeral Directors. With its lawns and rose bushes and chapel, its stately hearses and solemn rituals, Dearborn and Zander is a royal estate where “any petal bold enough to fall” from blooms poised in a crystal vase is instantly removed, and the inhabitants are not permitted to show emotion or take a night off.
Like heirs to the throne, the Dearborn and Zander men must accept their responsibilities, inheriting the business whether they like it or not. Sam Dearborn, Lola’s ebullient husband, has to step in when his friend Ben Zander dies in a freak accident; after Sam’s death, their son, the reluctant but dutiful Adam, takes over. The wives, bemused duchesses or grasping social climbers, find themselves married to the firm and expected to act the part – comforting, tea-making, tidying, arranging – for the rest of their lives.
Dying, in fact, appears to be the only way out. Alice, Ben’s widow, spends her post-accident life as an invalid in another on-site apartment, cared for by Lola, her devoted friend. After Alice’s death – more drawn-out and poignant than either Ben’s or Sam’s – Lola finally slithers free of this hushed, constrained life. A trip with Alice to an old-fashioned grand hotel in Melbourne persuades her that life as a hotel resident offers the freedom she seeks – freedom with maid service and a three-course dinner every night. So Lola moves back to Napier, a home town conveniently denuded of any relations or acquaintances or associations, and into a corner room at the Majestic Hotel, where from her bed she can observe “the fronds of a palm tree, silvered by starlight and strafed by the pulsing of a crossing light”.
Unlike Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont, Lola doesn’t fall in with a resident crew of eccentrics. She’s the only long-term resident of the hotel, tolerated rather than welcomed by the staff, and while we’re told she befriends the local dairy owner and signs up for almost every middle-class organisation (music, library, art gallery, theatre), all we see is Lola resisting intimacy. She keeps to herself at the hotel, and won’t let Miriam, the local theatre’s comic props queen – with a house “decorated in scarves and fairy motifs” – into her room. When faithful Luigi, a manager at Dearborn and Zander, comes to visit, she won’t even sit in the back of the taxi with him.
Friendship – and an implausible third act in Lola’s life – arrives in the form of a young string quartet. They bond with Lola over Schumann and late-night suppers, and eventually lure her away to a sort-of job as touring manager and a room of her own in their sprawling Mt Eden villa.
Nobody here has any financial problems, of course – or else they have the kind of financial problems some readers would long for. Charles and Lola take a cruise; Luigi takes a luxury bus tour back in his native Italy. One of the young players in the Sylvester Quartet inherits the Mt Eden villa. Charles flies back and forth to the States, and sells his Sydney home to buy a new one elsewhere and pay his ungrateful daughter an allowance. Lola is conscious that her life as a hotel denizen can’t last forever, but she’s hardly counting her pennies.
Dispensing with all potential conflict of this kind diminishes, to some extent, the novel’s sensitive exploration of the challenges Lola and many others her age face, especially after the death or departure of a spouse – the challenges of reinvention, isolation, definition, position. This is a novel about life after death, in a way, and how to renegotiate the terms.
The graceful precision of the detail, one of Smither’s great gifts, sometimes has an enervating effect on the story. At a dinner with the Sylvester Quartet – whose fancy names (Rosamunde, Ghislaine, Felix and Bertolt) suggest they must have led fraught adolescences at New Zealand high schools – Lola gives a buzz-killing toast (“To the gift of friendship that resembles music”), and then we read that “after more champagne was poured, a second bottle ordered and presented, and room made in the ice bucket, they ate silently.” The languid pace almost stutters to a halt. And it’s significant, I think, that the word “decorously” appears more than once in the novel, because the narrative – even Lola herself – is often decorous to a fault.
Smither’s evident warmth towards her characters sometimes trembles on the brink of cosiness. Lola isn’t soft on or about other people, but the author, freewheeling through points of view, can be. True, Smither has a cooler eye for two of the younger female characters – Lola’s cold, ambitious daughter-in-law, Rhiannon, who finds life-after-funeral-home in a cynical new business venture, a pet cemetery; and Charles’ pathetic, spoiled daughter Brandy, who turns up near the end of the novel to slap her father and demand money.
Both are a little too broadly drawn. Brandy, in particular, seems a comic figure at one moment and a malevolent one the next, but ultimately she’s just a convenient way of shuffling Charles off-stage. An author with a more satirical eye would have made something of these well-dressed hustlers; they would be more than minor speed bumps in the story, threatening more complexity than they actually provide. But perhaps I’m seeking a different kind of pleasure to the one Lola seeks to provide – gentle, quiet, thoughtful.
Paula Morris is a New Orleans reviewer.