Anne Enright, an Irish writer of luminous family intricacies, explores the trajectory and minuscule tragedy of an affair between married people in “The Forgotten Waltz.” The story is told in retrospect by the errant heroine, Gina, who begins by saying, “If it hadn’t been for the child then none of this might have happened, but the fact that a child was involved made everything that much harder to forgive,” referring to her lover’s daughter, an ill child, who is over-coddled and mostly unlikeable. Enright’s book isn’t about the excitement of an affaire de’coeur but rather the dreary, everyday occurrence of relationships ruined. As Gina reveals the beginning (and what appears to be the end) of her relationship with Seán to the reader, we’re drawn into this relatively simple story of exquisite characterization. She excels when delving into the pain and love that exists between family members, sibling rivalry, and complex relationships with parents, as in her Man Booker-prize-winning book, “The Gathering.”
Scenes between Gina and her sister are the most delicate, only hinting at the intricacy of their past. When their mother dies, they explode at each other. “I didn’t tell her she could fuck off back to her muppet of a husband, who rolls on to her after his bottle of Friday-night wine, and then rolls off again. If she calls that love. Wondering has he come yet, and how much it would cost to have a horse in livery like the woman down the road. I didn’t say any of this to my sister. How I saw her being broken into mediocrity and motherhood; her body broken and then her mind—or did her mind go first, it’s sort of hard to disentangle—and then for her to turn round and say Broken is Best, I didn’t say how that made me furious beyond measure.”
Told against the backdrop of the rise and fall of the Celtic Tiger, these suddenly-wealthy characters revel in their seaside homes, only to experience breakups during the bust of the Irish economy. Divorce is inconveniently timed with the mundanity of a real-estate economy in massive decline. The mother’s death leaves Gina not just at sea emotionally, but also with another property to sell. Finally it’s that child, so unloved by Gina, the unforgivable kink in a relationship with Seán, to which the story returns. Her illness, perceived or real, by an anxious mother, is naturally one of the factors of that marriage falling apart—but, no surprise, Seán is a bit of a cad.
As Gina becomes better acquainted with the young girl, she comes to feel not just affection but a protective love for her. It’s as if she remembers all too well the agony of being twelve years old and regrets her own negative impact on the girl’s life. No one gets a break in “The Forgotten Waltz,” but the unflinching examination is also deeply funny. “Because, let’s face it—from the day the child was born, Aileen acted as though Evie could die at any moment. What she discovered, when she looked into the baby’s muddy blue eyes, was fear in a form she had never known before. And weaning Evie off her medication was easy compared to weaning her off the breast, for example, which was a major production only slightly less fraught than the three-act opera of getting her on the tit in the first instance.”
Fans of this brilliant writer won’t be disappointed. She plays with time and memory, causing the reader to take a moment to consider how the pieces fit together, to think and rethink their feelings toward Gina. This book is beautifully told, full of pain, love, intelligence and humor. (Kelly Roark)
“The Forgotten Waltz”
By Anne Enright
W.W. Norton and Company, 263 pages, $26