Reading Ireland Month 2021: Watermelon by Marian Keyes
Claire Webster has left Dublin behind her.
Despite a university education and a well paid job, she's decided to abandon Ireland, have some fun and try her luck in London. Whilst waitressing in a bar she meets tall, dark, handsome and nice accountant James. Unlike all the other city boys flashing the cash after work, James can hold a conversation. He even reads books. Before long, they have moved in together, Claire has found a better job, and soon they are married. They have a perfect flat, and a perfect life. Claire is the irresponsible party animal, James is the one who clears up the mess. After all, he's good at that and she's usually far too hungover to know where to start. It works for them. Claire thinks so.
As the book opens, Claire has just given birth to their baby. James appears at the hospital, but he's not bearing gifts, nor is he interested in his new daughter. Instead he's come to inform Claire that he's leaving her. He's met someone else (and that someone else turns out to be their neighbour Denise.)
Watermelon is the story of how Claire copes with the fallout from the shock of her life. She's heartbroken - she still loves James; she's incredulous - he's just overreacting, he'll be back; and she's humiliated - all her friends knew of James's intentions before she did. Devastated, she goes back to the only other home she has; her parents' house in Dublin.
And it's there that this story really takes off, because the Walsh family as a whole are a whole lot more interesting than Claire on her own.
Two parents - Mammy Walsh, who prefers television and chick lit to cooking meals or wielding the Hoover;
'..the wonderful thing about my mother not cooking or doing any housework is that it meant she had plenty of time for the truly important things in life. She watched an average of six soap operas a day and read about four novels a week, so she was expertly placed to give her daughters advice on their broken romances.'
'She was no stranger to romantic tragedy. Especially if it was Australian.'
Dad, who has long since realised that, in a house of women, a quiet life is to be prized at all costs (he does the Hoovering and reads Marie Claire for advice), and two of Claire's sisters; student Helen, who is beautiful, totally self-centred, eats men for breakfast and spits them out again by lunchtime, and alternative Anna, vague, kind, unemployed, into horoscopes and hallucinatory substances. (The older two, Margaret and Rachel, have already left home.)
Claire's parents are particularly well drawn and entertaining. Mrs Walsh convinces as a woman who's dragged up five girls and isn't doing any more dragging, Mr Walsh is a kind man who nevertheless is the one elected to to tell Claire to pull herself together for the sake of her baby, Kate;
'"You're a good girl, you know" he half-smiled at me, "No matter what your mother and your sisters say."'For, once ensconced in her childhood bedroom, Claire spends several weeks in complete meltdown. She never gets dressed, she never washes, she drinks like a fish, she cries all day, she shouts at her family - and she's still convinced she can get James back. And that that's what she wants.
At first I found this part of the story convincing; having a baby is traumatic enough without being deserted on the same day - but as time went on - and on - I started to lose patience with Claire. Yes, she's had a horrible time, but my goodness does she milk it. She has a loving and supportive family, no rent to pay, and nobody died. Maybe Keyes wants us to get cross with her?
In the end Claire does start to rejoin the land of the living. She cleans herself up and decides to make dinner for the family (Mrs W is appalled - 'I really wish you wouldn't do this. You'll give them notions, you know.'), And then she meets Adam.
Adam is one of Helen's many acquaintances, and needless to say, he's handsome, clever, sensitive.... And this is the point at which I felt let down by this book; it's as though Claire cannot possibly recover from one man without finding another. Watermelon was published in 1996, not 1956. I wish Keyes had shown us Claire taking control of her own life.
The on-off romance with Adam is taking a fairly predictable course, when who should appear but James. He's split up with Denise and he wants Claire back. Now this, to me, was one of the best bits of the story. Keyes has completely nailed James as a smug, self-satisfied, prick. He's offering generously to forgive Claire for all of her 'bad behaviour' - but hang on, who actually had the affair here? Who did the dumping? And he'll kindly have her back if she promises to change into the kind of woman he wants. Which is not the kind of woman Claire ever was.
Will Claire decide to return to her respectable, financially stable, life with her pompous philanderer of a husband, or to branch out on her own? This was the first point in the book at which I started to feel strongly about Claire and what she should do, and this was largely because James was such a brilliant, lifelike, creation. I don't think the term 'gaslighting' was in common usage 25 years ago, but if it had been, James would have taken first prize. I enjoyed watching Claire struggle to make a final choice - the mere fact that she had to struggle really underlined how insidious and undermining such behaviour can be.
Watermelon is a good book but not, for me, a great one. Nevertheless, I look forward to reading more about the Welch family (who feature in many of Keyes' other novels.)
Watermelon by Marian Keyes was first published in 1996 by Poolbeg Press. The first paperback edition was published by Mandarin in 1997.