THE LEMON GROVE, by Helen Walsh. Doubleday, 200 pp., $24.95.
Pour a cold drink and pleat a paper fan before you start this one, lady readers, because the energy between a teenage boy and an older woman hasn't been this hot since "Summer of '42." Those who remember that 1971 film are definitely in the market for Helen Walsh's expertly paced and emotionally insightful "The Lemon Grove." The third novel from this British author, it may be her breakout in the States.
In a taut narrative with just a touch of Daphne du Maurier, Walsh takes the long- and pleasantly married Jenn and Greg on summer vacation to Majorca, to the villa they've been renting for years. This year they've allowed their 15-year-old daughter, Emma, to invite her boyfriend, Nathan. The kids come in after the parents have had a few Rioja-soaked but not very sexy days to themselves. As soon they arrive, those lazy days of summer are over.
"Jenn is conscious of herself not quite controlling her reaction. She can feel her face slacken. She tried to compensate, looking down. ... He is wearing a pair of plain blue swimming shorts; otherwise, he is naked before her. He is muscular but graceful with it, balletic. He is shockingly pretty. She is aware of the seeming impropriety of registering these details -- he is seventeen -- and yet she cannot tear her eyes away."
Nathan has startled her in the kitchen, coming up behind her while she's beating eggs for lunch. She drops the bowl, the eggs spill and the veggies on the stove begin to burn. Yet, the careful reader may notice, the ceramic bowl doesn't break. Walsh is great at such ominous, symbol-laden moments. There is a constant undercurrent of danger in the book, lots of driving and hiking on precipitous mountain roads, diving from cliffs, storms blowing in.
The nuances of the relationships among the family members make "The Lemon Grove" more than a steamy page-turner. While Emma treats Jenn with the cold snarkiness any mother of a teenager knows all too well, Jenn is not actually her mom: Greg's wife died in childbirth and he married Jenn a year later, which puts them on unequal footing as parents. As for Jenn and Greg, Walsh captures the comfort and the irritation of their years of familiarity. Jenn herself is a complex character: She has both a conscience and a streak of amorality -- she pays for her groceries but steals a newspaper along with them.
There is a fair amount of sex in the book, and Walsh's descriptions of it are simple, graphic and effective. Like I said: cold drink and fan.