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The Idea of Love Paperback – 22 Sep 2017
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'Engaging...it is hard to stop turning the pages...arresting...fizzes with talent.' Sunday Times
In her dark and witty third novel, Louise Dean evokes the loveless marriages of two couples living in Provence. Richard is the head of sales in Africa for a pharmaceutical company. He spends most of his time away on business, sleeping with strange women and pushing psychiatric drugs on a developing market where hearing voices is considered "a manifestation of witchcraft". Back in Provence, he and his wife, Valérie, no longer share a bed, and his teenage son, Maxence, is hearing voices of his own. When Richard begins an affair with a neighbour, Rachel, he discovers that Valérie, too, is having an affair - with Rachel's husband, Jeff. With wry humour, Dean captures the gloom of existences imploding in incongruous surroundings.' The Observer
'Wonderfully complex and original novel about desire, disappointment and mental illness, largely set in ex-pat Provence...Louise Dean's lovely rendering of her awful people makes The Idea of Love an enormous delight.’ The Independent
'This dark novel is interesting and original, a study of love but not romance and a story with many morals.’ The Telegraph
‘An acute, cynical wit… An unforgettable study of the dark side of the mind.’ The Times.
‘In her third novel, Louise Dean regards with a sardonic eye a group of scalded lovers ricocheting between desire, despair and dipsomania.....Dean's portrayal of Maxence's madness and his mission to save souls is tender and funny, and lifts the novel far above the torrid soul-searching of its narcissistic lovers.’ The Guardian
'Louise Dean's third novel is a careful dissection of our search for love in its many forms – sexual, religious, parental, and brotherly....Dean has a deliciously wry eye for the convincing detail.’ Literary Review
'An unusual but fascinating story that examines the different ways in which people face the harsh realities of love gone wrong.’ Tatler
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Richard's pharmaceutical job takes him all over Europe and then into Africa, and it is here that he comes up against the dangers inherent in treating all cultures alike in the market-driven imperatives of drug proliferation. A side-plot also involves Rachel's desire to adopt an African child - and again, wealthy westerners are brought up against some uncomfortable truths about the continent which does not fit in with their naïve, if generous assumptions. This adoption side-plot though, feels rather pitch-forked in as an `issue' and is a less convincing element as a result.
The novel then moves back to life in the Var where Richard has a sudden epiphany, partly caused by his African experiences, but also by the realisation that his son has been growing up a stranger to him and he must face profound doubts about his marriage. The consequences play out with deeply affecting realism, not least for adolescent Max.
The novel tackles modern evils that masquerade as cure-alls, but weaved skilfully and inexorably with questions about the terrors that assault the lover no less than those betrayed by love. This is a beautifully constructed and artfully written book. Dean's internal narratives are often pithy and full of insight. It is a beautifully sanguine read, as she moves closer to the idea of what love can do powerfully well - and what it can't.
When Richard goes to see his local doctor for, ironically enough, some of the drugs he has been selling, he bares his soul:
"`I'll tell you what the problem is, it's the absence of understanding of what love really is', he said... `Love is the last delusion of the rational age, the final faith. In a world in which everything is junk, everything is disposable, the idea of love as a fearsome promise is something worth dying for. Worth living for even. Don't you think?'"
The novel is, however, as billed by the title, one that concerns the concept of love, be it ever so tattered in today's world. The two principal couples swap, and the parents of one of the women are good background foils, and the one son winds up being so much "collateral damage," as adults are still struggling to make up their mind. Of the various characters, I think that Ms. Dean draws Richard the most authentically. Strong insights, if I may say so, into the male psyche for a female author. Concerning that central theme, the author says: "This scenario eliminates from the possibility of love all but the most innocent, most remote places. Perhaps it persists in regions of rural Ethiopia." Also thought she had some great analogies, like: "...how we are so certain when we are young but doubt becomes increasingly seductive, like going over to comfortable shoes..."
But I also had numerous problems with the novel. In particular, one couple, Jeffery and Rachel did not seem well-drawn. There actions and motivations in many cases did not seem plausible. He is American, she British. They are sent to Provence by Jeffery's business partner to supervise the construction of his villa. Do they speak French? Do they know anything about construction? What is their legal status in France? Suddenly, despite the fact that they have one daughter, and perhaps can have more, they want to adopt a child from Sierra Leone. They are going to French authorities to obtain counseling concerning the adoption process, yet neither are French. Occasionally the author mentions the problems of dealing with the French government bureaucracy, like France Telecom, yet drops the theme when dealing with a matter infinitely more complex. Then the scenes in Sierra Leone, some seem authentic, some seemed fanciful. There is even the part when Rachel takes the train to Gare du Lyon, and taxis to Gare du Nord, at a time when a prudent person would have taken the train all the way to Lille, and changed there. Disconcerting details amiss.
I was OK with the couple swap; it is plausible, but towards the end I became simply exhausted reading about so many dysfunctional characters, without the attendant dollops of insight. Thus the reading seemed like so much water-boarding, and it was with a sigh of relief that I concluded the book. Overall, some great themes which deserve more polishing for prime-time.
(Note: Review first published at Amazon, USA, on June 05, 2009)