Rose Tremain walks on water. Her historical novels are absolutely marvellous, brilliantly plotted, witty and wise, with some of the best characters you’ll find anywhere. Indeed one of their number has a good claim to being the natural heir to Falstaff, his bawdy antics giving way to a more melancholy conclusion: he is to be found in both Restoration and the eponymous Merivel. Tremain’s contemporary fiction is similarly strong. With tremendous insight and sympathy, The Road Home describes the life of an Eastern European as he tries to make a new life in England. The novel is a powerful corrective to the notion that economic migrants have an easy time of things. If Nigel Farage et al haven’t read this book, it’s about time they did.
The American Lover is a short-story collection. It would be fair to say it is a bit of a hotchpotch, with stories of very varying length, theme, tone and style. The majority have already been published in newspapers or magazines, and when assembled they don’t flow as a purpose-built collection should.
There are short-story writers who also produce novels (Lorrie Moore, for instance) and, more common, novelists who also write occasional stories. Sometimes these sorties into other kinds of storytelling have excellent results, but as a general rule writers are at their best in the form they most often turn to. The novelist is skilled at extending, the short-story writer at compressing. A successful story should leave the reader with the luxurious sense that something generous, almost wasteful, has been bestowed; like one of those recipes which demand that you boil a whole lobster with a pint of white wine and a quart of cream but only retain a couple of tablespoons of liquid at the end. By contrast, I fancy that some novelists turn to short stories in the way that the rest of us turn to our fridges on a Sunday night, wondering how to use up those scraps that are too good to throw away, but not enough for a feast.
Most of the stories here are such morsels. There’s one about a man who starts a dog kennels, another in which a daughter visits her mother during a heavy storm, while one concerns a dear old man who goes for walks. Each has only a snippet of a story.
Tremain is not inclined, here, to be kind to lovers. A pretty girl from the suburbs goes to Paris, buys a black dress, has an unsuitable fling and comes home again; while in the title story, another ill-judged liaison ends badly. Love never seems to bring happiness. An elderly couple running away from their middle-aged daughter is an excellent premise: in the hands of Lorrie Moore this would have been a devilishly good tale, but here Tremain kills off one of the escapees and the initial exuberance just fizzles out.
The most successful stories are the three which reimagine key scenes from other writers’ lives or work. There’s one called ‘21st Century Juliet’, a funny and sharp reworking of Shakespeare’s heroine. The best story concerns an unhappily married station master at the tiny railway station where the dying Tolstoy ends his days, pursued by his own miserable wife. Another gem imagines a passionate affair between Daphne du Maurier and the model for Mrs Danvers, conducted in the same boathouse where the wicked Rebecca goes to meet her lover.
These tales are fantastic. A wise editor would have suggested that Rose Tremain write a handful of others along similar lines.