Dropping the word “enlightenment” into a novel’s title can be read as a provocation of sorts. It implies certain aspirations, certain promises of insight and revelatory character development.
In Andrea Gillies’ The Enlightenment of Nina Findlay, this insinuated promise is an ever-elusive lure seducing us through the story of a middle-aged woman recovering from an injury, and the end of her marriage, in a Greek hospital.
Nina Findlay grew up next door to the Romano brothers, and though she and mercurial Luca were both matched in age and seemingly soul mates, it’s solid older brother Paolo Nina ends up marrying. For over 20 years, as both Luca and Nina continue in separate marriages, they maintain a passionate, flirtatious friendship -- one that seems to add the color and spice lacking from their humdrum domestic lives.
A mysterious, dramatic turn of events blows up this uneasy triangle, however; after the untimely death of Luca’s wife, Nina and Paolo separate, and most shockingly of all, Nina and Luca’s friendship has been shattered. Nina insists that she now hates Luca, that the breach can’t be mended, though for most of the novel we’re entirely in the dark as to why.
Having lost her steady if unexciting spouse and her thrilling if undependable best friend, Nina sets off to Greece in hopes of finding herself in the same romantic setting where she and Paolo honeymooned decades before. Instead, she finds herself in the way of a speeding van and ends up in the hospital nursing a broken leg and confiding in her enigmatic, charming doctor.
Nina has many uninterrupted hours to find herself as she recuperates, eats yogurt in her airy hospital room, graciously allows her handsome doctor to question her about her personal life and emotional state, and ponders her broken marriage. Dashing Dr. Christos, however, serves as the perfect distraction for Nina, who has always defined herself in relation to the men in her life. Seeing the doctor’s attraction to her, she quickly imagines a new romance, a new marriage, a new life: “She smiled at the snippet of film she saw of their island wedding, the two of them standing under the tree in the square, the whole community gathered around them... She looked absolutely content, this woman, and young for her age.”
Of course, Nina is naive and impulsive; her fantasy seems plucked from Eat Pray Love, right down to the plan to write a book about her foreign adventure and second marriage. Lessons, clearly, must be learned.
Dr. Christos, for example, proves a more complicated, and less appealing, figure than his initial disarming pose would suggest. There is no escape into an easy, uncomplicated second life with him. Nina comes to recognize how much she’d idealized her beautiful but clingy mother, Anna, who’d died not long after her father asked for a divorce -- and accordingly, how much of her marital life she’d based on her mother’s deeply flawed advice.
These revelations make up the narrative arc of the novel, which blandly overturns Nina’s youthful misconceptions about life and love. There may still be fresh things to say about women in love, but the value of finding someone dependable and sticking with him isn’t that fresh thing; if anything, it’s a quite conservative stance. Turning the other, more passionate option into some sort of villain is an easy choice, on par with making the losing love interest in a bad rom-com into a cartoonish jerk.
Nina’s enlightenment seems less an enlightenment than a resignation. In her mid-40s, life has left her with few options, or at least few she’s willing to contemplate, and at last she sees her way toward accepting one of those options as a way forward -- but not before the other ones have been blasted out of the water.
Gillies is a skilled writer, painting the scene of Nina’s Greek getaway with cleanly evocative prose, but the characters struggle to come to life, and the bold promise of enlightenment never quite comes through.
The Bottom Line: Gillies’ gracefully distilled prose makes The Enlightenment of Nina Findlay pleasant reading, but the characters and tired narrative fall flat.
What other reviewers think: The Guardian: "The secrets that apparently held the couples together for 25 years don't add up, while the 'tragedy' Nina hints at so heavily doesn't, when finally revealed, seem much worse than what has gone before."
Publishers Weekly: "This sure-handed, lovely exploration of the human heart is certain to build Gillies’s audience."
Who wrote it? Andrea Gillies is the author of the award-winning 2010 memoir Keeper: One House, Three Generations and a Journey into Alzheimer’s, as well as the novel The White Lie, published in 2012. This is her second novel.
Who will read it? Readers who enjoy introspective, thoughtful fiction focused on the domestic sphere.
Opening lines: “When the minibus came round the sharpest bend of the descent, trundling along in poor light on the stony dirt road, its driver failed, at first, to see the woman standing taking photographs. He didn’t see her until just before he ran into her.”
Notable passage: “Didn’t she want to be married to Paolo? Yes. She did. She had meant it when she said yes. Did she really, privately, long to be married to Luca? No. She didn’t. She had meant it when she said no. It was the right order of things, to be married to the friend, a man who loved her sincerely, and to have Luca there in the vicinity. Luca was never going to love her as Paolo did and the pattern of things felt right. Anna would have approved it. So what was the problem? Even the geography of the problem was unclear.”
The Enlightenment of Nina Findlay by Andrea Gillies Other Press, $17.95 Publishes May 5, 2015
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