Friday 17 January 2020

Isabelle in the Afternoon: A deep, idyllic love lived through small windows of opportunity

Fiction: Isabelle in the Afternoon

Douglas Kennedy Arrow, hardback, 352 pages, €16.99

Poignant: Douglas Kennedy's Isabelle in the Afternoon is a touching and engrossing novel
Poignant: Douglas Kennedy's Isabelle in the Afternoon is a touching and engrossing novel
Isabelle in the Afternoon by Douglas Kennedy

Prior to becoming a full-time novelist, Manhattan-born Douglas Kennedy attended Trinity College Dublin and later ran the Abbey Theatre's studio theatre, The Peacock. During his five years there, he wrote plays for RTÉ and BBC Radio 4, and in 1983, he began his writing career in earnest.

Since then, his books have sold 15 million copies around the world, with some being made into successful movies (The Big Picture, The Women in the Fifth) with stars such as Catherine Deneuve, Ethan Hawke and Kristin Scott Thomas. A fluent French speaker, he is hugely popular in France, where he has sold eight million of his books and where he received the honour of Chevalier de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.

In his latest offering, this master storyteller revisits some of the themes of his 2011 novel, The Moment.

The protagonists in both books look back at their younger selves from the vantage of middle age. Both set out as driven, ambitious young Americans embarking on adventure in a European capital. Both are innocents abroad and there is a whiff of intrigue or even reckless danger which is exciting for them. For young Thomas in The Moment, it is the thrill of going behind the Berlin Wall in the 1980s, while for Samuel in this latest novel, it is a passionate affair with an older married woman, Isabelle, in the afternoons of spring 1977 in Paris.

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With Isabelle in the Afternoon, Kennedy exquisitely confirms the old adage of 'what's seldom is wonderful and what's rare is precious'.

Coming from small-town midwest America, with a distant father and an indifferent stepmother, Samuel has worked hard to get a scholarship to Harvard Law School. Like many of his contemporaries, if he survives "the social Darwinism according to Ivy League rules", the trajectory of his life will be marked out for him in advance: a lucrative job in a prestigious law firm, where he will become a partner by the age of 30 and presumably acquire a wife, a couple of children and a home in suburbia along the way.

In a few months, Samuel is due to take up a summer job as a clerk for a judge before he begins college in the autumn. He decides to use his savings to experience a last few months of freedom in Europe. In his cheap rented room in Paris, he wonders about the constantly fighting couple next door, if this is the endgame to all relationships. As he waits for the adventure to begin, he is lonely and passes the time visiting museums, cinemas and jazz clubs until he meets a fellow ex-pat who introduces him to Isabelle.

They begin an intense affair, with Isabelle calling the shots. They can only meet on a couple of afternoons between 5 and 7pm in her tiny apartment which she uses for her work as a translator. They can never be seen together, go out for a meal or stroll hand-in-hand. While the young Samuel is head over heels in love, Isabelle is pragmatic, with no plans to leave the comfortable life with her aristocratic older husband, Charles, who also has affairs.

Their time together runs out and Sam reluctantly returns to the US, immersing himself in his studies and shying away from women who can never match up to Isabelle and this idealised first love. However, life goes on and Sam eventually meets someone who is attainable - Rebecca, a super-bright lawyer - and he convinces himself that she is the one. As he had previously with Isabelle, Sam ignores any flaws and they plan their life together. However, the mundanity of daily life can never compete with the fantasy of love spent exclusively in a bubble of fierce passion. After they marry, Rebecca goes into a tailspin when a case goes against her. She becomes bitter as Sam's star is on the rise but it is clear she will never be made a partner in her firm.

Time passes, babies are born and Sam and Isabelle keep in touch over the years. Both suffer tragedies, which have huge consequences for their lives and relationships. Several times their liaison could have worked but there are always timing differences and the balance of power bounces back and forth.

Kennedy hammers home the difference between this deep, genuine and idyllic love which never has to be lived on a daily basis but only through thrilling small windows of opportunity, compared to the reality and minutiae of the quotidian in a relationship.

By the time he is middle-aged, there is only one way for Samuel to face reality in a poignant but uplifting ending, as once again, Kennedy demonstrates his ability to keep the pages turning in this touching and engrossing novel.

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