Author: Esther Freud
Details: (c) Esther Freud 2003; Pub Penguin Books 2004; ISBN 0-141-01107-6
Verdict: The sea house is technically well-executed but unsatisfying as a whole.
Reasons for reading it: The Jewish book discussion group picked it as this month's choice.
How it came into my hands: My parents bought a copy for said book group, so I was able to read it more or less swapping off with my Dad.
I really wanted to like The Sea House. Everything I've read about Esther Freud has made me think she's the kind of author I'd like, and in fact she is that kind of author, but somehow tSH didn't work for me. It's almost as if it's written as an exemplar for a writing course: everything follows the rules of currently fashionable writing of the sort that straddles the boundary between popular and literary. But the book seems to exist purely as a vehicle for Freud to show off her writing ability, which is not what I want in a novel.
Also, pretty much every single person in tSH is irritating. They all drift through life and don't take any positive action, and don't really seem to care who is hurt by their lack of initiative. They have sex with eachother more or less at random, with no obvious motivation beyond furthering the plot or even giving Freud a chance to write sex scenes. They're not bad sex scenes, any more than the descriptions of the East Anglia landscape are bad descriptions, but they just seem really pointless.
The jumping about between 1953 and 2003 is a technique that has been done to death. Again, Freud handles it well, but my main reaction was still, so what? The connections between the two parallel stories are clever but in a way that seems contrived. She seems to be trying to imitate Possession, with her modern heroine learning about a love affair from a previous generation by reading letters, and using the insights from that to sort out her own relationship. It's just that all the relationships are so entirely arbitrary that it's hard to believe in their emotional reality. Klaus' love letters to Elsa are held up as a romantic ideal from a bygone age, but to me Klaus seems impossibly possessive and controlling.
And finishing with everybody back with their original partners is too pat. I'm not sure if the message is supposed to be that this is really a moral book, or one of depressing fatalism, that it doesn't really matter what decisions you make, you're just going to end up back where you started. Also, if you're going to excuse adultery by showing the flaws in the original relationships, then restoring the original configurations is rather awkward. Also, saying "I love you" doesn't magically fix a broken relationship.
I really disliked the way the domestic violence arc is handled; it's rather "man bites dog" and treated as more or less a joke, which I found deeply unpleasant. On the other hand, the Holocaust background is done fairly sensitively, and explores something which doesn't get much literary exposure, namely adult refugees adapting to their new life in England post-war and trying to deal with what they discover about the family they left in Germany.
The Sea House did provoke some very good discussion at the book group, though! Several of the group thought much more highly of the book than I did, and there was some suggestion that the kinds of things I found irritating were deliberate technique. Perhaps Freud is deliberately satirizing the standard romantic tropes, by writing a book about people trying to have relationships with romantic ideals and failing to notice the real people they interact with.