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"I'd like to be allowed to dream a bit, to plan"
on 3 October 2004
Love, art, and memory are the central themes of this fluid and multi-layered novel from Esther Freud. With its duel narrative, its epistolary structure, and its readiness to easily slip from the past to the present, The Sea House paints an indelible and quite beautiful portrait of a small English seaside community in Suffolk; a community that affects people from different generations in unexpected and quite life-changing ways.
Lily is twenty-seven and lives in London with her boyfriend, Nick. But when she visits the small seaside village of Steerborough, a few hours away from London, she is immediately entranced. Lily is pursuing a degree in architecture, while also working as a waitress at a restaurant in Covent Garden. She's been working on her thesis, whose subject is deceased architect Klaus Lehmann, a former resident of Steerborough.
When Lily moves to Steerborough and rents a cottage to continue work on her thesis, she takes with her a stack of letters from Klaus Lehmann to his wife, Elsa. The letters chronicle the periods during which Lehmann and his wife lived apart. While Lily's research is supposed to be focused on Lehmann's work as an architect, the possessive love letters that Klaus wrote to Elsa before and after World War 11 quickly intrigue and engross her.
The angst ridden and desperate letters of love, force Lily to confront her own relationship with Nick, and she realizes that a return to London would be just too deleterious. Lily has not only come to doubt Nick, but also her own ambitions; she begins to feel that she's not cut out to be an architect and anguishes that after three years of training, she still doesn't know what to do. She's content to live in the present, just "drifting around."
The story drifts between Lily in the present day and back to 1953 when Klaus and Elsa where friends of Gertrude Jilks, a child psychoanalyst, and her friend Max Meyer, a deaf artist who is energetically painting a scroll of Steerborough. Much of the 1953 narrative is told from the point of view of Max, as he takes over the town, "muddling up traffic on the village's one street, peering through windows, examining borders, and choosing which house or cottage to paint next."
The opening of The Sea House is a little confusing as the abrupt changes in time from the past to the present may be somewhat hard to follow for some readers. But this reader recommends sticking with the story, because there are lots of surprising plot twists and turns and Freud's gorgeous descriptions of Steerborough's geography, weather, and natural beauty are unsurpassed. Just as Max paints his scroll of the town, Lily - along with the reader - experiences the same severe beauty almost half a century later. And although there are long stretches where nothing happens, it hardly matters, because the rich and detailed atmosphere of quite, domestic life in this little seaside village is enough to enthrall. The Sea House is a clever and subtle story, proving to be an immensely satisfying read about art, desire, and the complexities of personal relationships. Mike Leonard October 04.