In Rose Tremain's latest novel, "Absolutely & Forever," readers are taken on a delicate journey through the life of the main character, Marianne.
This coming-of-age story unfolds in the 1950s when Marianne is introduced as a 15-year-old attending country house parties in Berkshire. The upper-middle-class setting is meticulously crafted, evoking the atmosphere of the era with scenes of girls dancing to Tommy Steele, enjoying cider cups, and savouring "cold collations" of chicken legs and coleslaw.
It's at one of these gatherings that Marianne meets Simon, an 18-year-old Marlborough school student, and experiences the loss of her virginity in the back seat of his baby-blue Morris Minor.
Tremain's storytelling combines authenticity with wit, offering humorous moments like Marianne's father, an ex-army colonel, sceptically questioning Simon about his car's performance.
The novel delves into the fervent intensity of adolescent love, depicting Marianne's obsessive feelings, from the "intoxicating" scent of post-coital knickers to her inability to eat or concentrate. Tremain portrays the chaotic nature of young love vividly.
As Marianne matures, she navigates the complexities of life in 1960s London, finding herself in a lonely and miserable state, pining for Simon. Her skin erupts, and she's surrounded by a city that doesn't match the swinging reputation of the era.
Marianne's journey includes encounters with various characters, some less than pleasant, as she grapples with her own identity and desires.
The story also explores her friendship with Pet, a warm and funny Scottish girl who represents a stark contrast to Marianne's directionless existence.
Pet's pursuit of a feminist awakening and a life with purpose stands in contrast to Marianne's caged-up domesticity.
The narrative shifts more than a decade later, when Marianne has weathered personal challenges and finds herself stuck in a marriage with Hugo. She reflects on her transformation, realizing she's becoming like her distant and cold mother, Lavender.
Marianne's relationship with her parents, especially her brandy-quaffing father, is depicted with nuance and empathy, highlighting their old-fashioned Englishness and co-dependence.
"Absolutely & Forever" is a character-driven novel that presents Marianne as both frustrating and endearing. Her evolution from immaturity to a more complex individual is portrayed with subtlety and care. Tremain explores themes of tolerance, kindness, and self-realization, making the novel relevant to contemporary readers.
The story reminds us that it's possible to break free from constraints without condemning those who may have played a role in shaping our lives.
In its best moments, the novel offers wit, thoughtfulness, and a humane perspective, delivering a delicate and contemplative reading experience.