A novel by Vendela Vida
Reviewed by Hardy Griffin
Have you ever finished a book and thought, “Wow, I really both loved and hated that”? It’s an odd experience, and I can’t seem to shake these contradictory feelings even a week after reading the last page of Vendela Vida’s The Lovers.
I was attracted to the novel when I recognized in the cover photo Lycian tombs in the sea off the Aegean and Mediterranean coasts of Turkey (the borders of these two seas are quite fuzzy and the tombs exist in this grey area). I saw the same tombs many times when I went on vacation during the 15 years I lived in Turkey, and I have many fond memories of the area and literally swimming through history.
The novel focuses on Yvonne, an American woman in her fifties who travels to Datça in Turkey. Sticking out like a long finger into the Aegean, Datça is the name of a peninsula and simultaneously the name of the town where the peninsula joins the mainland. This intrigued me because Datça is not one of the more internationally-known tourist destinations in Turkey. It is often quite windy, and beyond the town where the peninsula joins the mainland, there are only tiny villages with rudimentary accommodations.
Yvonne is returning to the area after twenty-eight years. She and her husband, Peter, first went there on their honeymoon. Now, two years after his death, Yvonne has returned to spend nine days alone in this town and on the peninsula, before meeting up with her grown, twin children—the financially successful Matthew and damaged Aurelia (a recovering drug addict)—for the second half of a chartered boat trip for the end of Matthew’s honeymoon.
In Datça, Yvonne thinks she can “remember how she was when she wasn’t twisted up and selfish. Here, with Peter, she had been generous and world-welcoming.”
Unfortunately, it doesn’t work out that way. She finds a sex swing on an upstairs bed in the ridiculously large, four-story villa she’s rented, along with a framed photo of a nude woman under the couch. The landlord, Ali Çelik, wakes her up with a call on the screeching house phone to say he is coming over and when he appears, he’s hairy and nouveau riche with a gaudy watch, and he lives on a nearby vineyard he owns. Later, as Yvonne walks around the streets of the town, she finds herself thinking “Datça had not been preserved. It had been looted by tide and tourists and the scalding sun that robbed boats of their color.” As she’s returning up the hill to the villa, she’s chased by what she thinks is a big black dog. Only after four men encircle the animal does she realize it is a goat.
At that point, I was about to put the novel down. Then Özlem enters the narrative. She is Ali Çelik’s wife, although she’s clearly not the woman in the nude photo. It turns out Yvonne is staying in the place Ali has bought for his French mistress, Manon—the reason Özlem is about to leave him.
Özlem seems to rejuvenate Yvonne, and she certainly saves the narrative—during their first conversation, we understand Yvonne’s marriage to Peter was not as happy as it seemed. In fact, after Peter’s funeral, Yvonne felt a strange kind of relief she didn’t have to plan a giant anniversary party they had discussed. Özlem has a certain power in the novel: Whenever she appears, she gently forces Yvonne to be honest with herself. This is an admirable quality I often observed in some people in Turkey, particularly in certain well-educated, middle-class Turkish women, and because of this the character was immediately and viscerally real to me.
Yvonne has rented a car with the villa, and she takes the hour-long drive to the end of the peninsula where the Knidos archeological site lies above a beach. On the beach, she meets Ahmet, a boy who looks about ten years old. He speaks very little English, and yet his adventurous, empathetic character comes shining through as he sells Yvonne some shells and they try to communicate. The writing captures the character beautifully, a boy who is shy, proud, fearless, and yet at the same time, wonderfully emotionally attuned to those around him, particularly, in this case, Yvonne.
The delightfully strange thing about this book is how Yvonne and Ahmet are the lovers of the title—not in a Lolita-esque way, but rather as two souls who understand one another on a deep level. In this place that is doubly foreign for Yvonne, she falls in love with this curious, deeply honest boy, even as he finds a kindred misfit in her.
The middle of the novel moves through four main areas: Yvonne with Ahmet, Yvonne with Özlem, Yvonne’s flashbacks, and Yvonne’s constant struggle with Datça. The first two keep the novel interesting, as Yvonne betrays Ahmet one day when she goes on a boat trip instead of meeting him. Only after the ultimately flat experience of this day tour does Yvonne truly realize how much Ahmet means to her, and when they see one another the next day, she takes great care to express remorse and to let him know how important he is, and all through gestures and broken, simple English. At the same time, Özlem continues to open up to Yvonne and tells her how she became a successful model for Dove soap in Istanbul but then Ali convinced her to move to Datça, where things fell apart as he cheated on her.
Yvonne’s flashbacks to her life in the U.S. actually push us further from her in a weird way. The husband’s death is random, and even though we learn Yvonne is from Vermont, there’s absolutely nothing particular about her life there, almost as if she’s the human embodiment of the bland food found in American mega-supermarkets. This is particularly strange given she is from a state with incredible fresh food—in one scene, Yvonne offers “a piece of cheese” to a friend and nothing more is said about it. I’ve only been to Vermont twice in my life, but both times, everyone discussed the cheese at length, and there was a reason—there are thousands of local varieties in every shop. This is of course a hyper-detail but that is how all the flashback scenes felt: flat, and a bit tasteless.
In the present moment, Yvonne continues to struggle with everyone in Datça, from the corner store owner and women by the side of the road selling her fresh fruit, to people desperately honking and flashing their lights to indicate the road has just been tarred and she shouldn’t drive her rental car quickly or, as she finds out too late, the tar will stick to the car and destroy the paint.
Just about two-thirds of the way through the novel, there’s a tragedy that is the climax of the book. It’s deeply painful, and very well written. Afterwards, Özlem and Ahmet disappear from the novel and Yvonne takes a bus into the interior of the country.
She first goes to Konya, and then to nearby Cappadocia. At this point, she is essentially falling into a psychological meltdown. The cities, the landscape, and the people become increasingly distant and even antagonistic forces. The whirling dervish show at the Mevlana Museum (for the poet known as Rumi in English and where his tomb is) makes Yvonne almost sick, as do the subterranean early churches found in Cappadocia.
In the last quarter of the novel, Yvonne is clearly on the edge of a breakdown in a place that is now absolutely foreign, as she has never been there before and doesn’t even have a guidebook or, for that matter, the ability to speak to people at the hotels and other places about where she is and what’s going on. At the same time, even though Konya and Cappadocia would probably not be at the absolute top of my list of places in Turkey with the warmest, most outgoing people, the way these two locations menace this rich American woman made it actually quite difficult to keep reading. Yvonne’s experiences and psychological journey are imminently believable, but the Turkey and the Turkish people described are increasingly unreal—as if an obviously fake backdrop in a movie had been transferred to the page. And the sense this conveys is of watching a superb actor (in this case, Yvonne) moving through a poorly-conceived set. In the end, I would recommend parts of this novel, such as the climax and the lead-up to, and all the scenes with Özlem and Ahmet, but other parts certainly felt quite unsettling.