Esther Freud’s novel Love Falls (Ecco, $13.95) takes place during the summer of 1981, against the backdrop of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer’s wedding, as 17-year-old Lara travels to Italy to spend time with her mysterious father. It’s the latter narrative on which the novel focuses, even as it relies on the former for period detail and a good deal of charm.
Freud’s likable sixth novel is a polite story about more or less polite people, and if it leaves the reader longing for a screaming, vibrant break in all the tact, well, alas. Lara’s “summer of self-discovery” — she’s marooned in a beautiful home in Tuscany with her father and an old friend of his, next door to a loutish English clan with interesting social ties to her own — makes for such simple, inoffensive reading, it’s almost as if Freud has penned an exercise in id-less-ness.
Freud’s characters appear all at once, fully formed and finely wrought, but remain at a considerable remove throughout. This feels stereotypically British, to be sure, but one wonders if our narrator, at least, could let down her guard a bit even if those around her seldom do. Near the end of a phone conversation with her mother, whom we never meet, Lara notes “a pause where people in American films would have declared their love,” a typically deft observation all the more frustrating given its context: a novel in which much is left unsaid. Certainly it’s difficult to approach a story about father/daughter estrangement by a writer whose last name is “Freud.” But Love Falls succeeds in spite of, or perhaps because of, its author’s famous lineage (and on the off chance a reader could be unaware of said lineage, Ms. Freud’s book jacket is quick to name-drop).
Much has been made of Freud’s father characters — their remove, their tormenting un-know-ability — and Love Falls showcases a prime example: Lambert Gold (né Wolfgang Goldstein). Lara is desperate to know her father, and tries in vain to engage him. At one point, when he begins to mention recent dreams, Lara pounces: “’Like what?’” she asks him eagerly. “‘What kind of dreams?’” Lambert leaves her hanging: “[A]nd then, as if remembering that dreams are only interesting to you and no one else, he bit his lip.” A knowing wink at Freud’s greatgrandfather’s life’s work, perhaps?
Lara’s longing to forge some sort of bond with her father is intensely moving. That she never remotely achieves it is nothing short of heartbreaking, and Freud hints beautifully at all the difficult dynamics therein. But the only respite from narrative and authorial politesse arrives in the form of Lara’s refreshingly torrid sexual affair with the eligible scion of her ex-pat neighbors, which Freud renders with exuberance and appropriate zest. We are reminded that Lara is still a young girl, yet, with much to learn and explore, and she’s all the more likable for that fact. Ruminating on the fate of another young innocent, Lara can’t help but wonder if Lady Di’s “fairytale” wedding is really so enviable. “It seemed so clear to Lara… that this would not make any young girl happy, but the only evidence she had to fuel her argument was that the prince in question, Prince Charles, wore his parting too far over to one side.” Mature words from our young narrator. That we might hope for something more surprising, risky, and boundaries-effacing is perhaps unfair, but expectations run high with regard to a lineage like Ms. Freud’s. Maybe too high.
Elisa Albert is the author of The Book of Dahlia, a novel, and the award-winning short story collection How This Night is Different