Vicarious Visits to Mallorca & Morocco: Peter Nichols’ Newest Novel

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In Marbella, around age 10. I only did this post because I looked tan in this picture.

If you know what I look like, you will undoubtedly be skeptical when I tell you that I have a lifelong connection to Spain. I am not a subject of Queen Letizia myself, though I wish I were, because her style blows Kate Middleton’s out of the water [not that I’m a subject of Kate Middleton’s either, but it’s refreshing to know that not all Royals subscribe to the tiresome uniform of semi-bootleg jeans and Breton tops]. That aside, my grandparents have lived in Marbella, Spain [where my father spent summers growing up as well] for as long as I can remember. I have visited dozens of times, and feel a connection to the culture and people of the country. Want proof? I raise you this photo of myself:

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Hi haters.

I am dressed as a traditional bailaora, next to my brother, dressed as a bandolero. I would consider myself the more convincing of the two.

Now that we’ve settled that, I’d like to move on to the actual subject of today’s post: Peter Nichols’ coastal Spanish novel The Rocks, which has been widely heralded as the book of the summer.

I wasn’t inherently interested in reading the book because it sounded quite similar to Jess Walter’s 2012 novel, Beautiful Ruins, minus the celebrity aspect, which I quite enjoyed. Also, I carry my book in my bag with me each day to work, and The Rocks is pretty damn hefty. So, it wasn’t at the top of my list, until I realized I would be taking a 3 and a half hour train ride on both Friday and Sunday, and needed a long and engaging read to pass that time. Also, my dad read the author blurb and told me I “had” to read the book because Peter Nichols was a shepherd in Wales, and I guess Pauli B is into that. The book had the added bonus of taking place in Mallorca, a coastal town in Spain similar to Marbella but, according to the characters in The Rocks, “less built up” [a statement with which I happen to disagree].

Ultimately, I think my affinity for Spain is what kept me interested in the book through the end [at 412 pages, it’s a commitment]. I loved the evocative descriptions of Spanish foods, the olive trees and oil, the sailboats, the port, and the people. This, coupled with the fact that the tale is told in reverse chronological order, starting in 2005 with the death of the two main characters, two 80 year-olds that have long lived on the island and were once a couple, and winding all the way back to 1948, to the incident that tore them apart, were the strong points of the book. If you enjoy rich description and travel narratives as much as I do, then you will consider Nichols a gifted storyteller. For these reasons, I loved the book. Now, for the fun part, let’s get to where it fell short.

The book takes inspiration from Romeo and Juliet in featuring two principal families that are fundamentally incompatible. Or maybe it’s a coincidence. Shakespeare is no longer around to sue Peter Nichols, so that’s a moot point. Anyways, each family features a single parent—Gerald Rutledge, and his daughter Aegina, [apparently she’s named for the Aegean Sea…right. If he was so into The Odyssey—which he was, by the way—why didn’t he just name her Helen?], and Lulu Franklin, who owns the titular small Majorcan hotel and her son, Luc. The pretentious spelling of his name alone should instantly alert you to the insufferable nature of his mother as a character. Lulu was, for lack of a better word, a bitch. First of all, she commits an irredeemable act within the first 50 pages of the book. I was so disgusted by what she’d done that I almost put the book down entirely, but mere curiosity as to whether she would repent for her actions kept me turning the pages. She doesn’t. In fact, she plays the victim throughout the duration of the tale, because of something [albeit awful] that happened to her in 1948. It would be fine if she were a deplorable protagonist and the characters—at least one—of the book recognized her shortcomings. Instead, she is beloved on the island while Gerald, her lover-turned-nemesis, is quiet, kind, and entirely underappreciated. Lulu, on the other hand, who we see progress from a young mother that refuses to take her son to the beach because she “doesn’t care for sand,” into one who, once he enters adulthood, expresses frequent disappointment for his choice of profession [film producer] and the quality of his work. Her guests are apparently immune to her frequent condescension and erratic behavior; she’s the reason they keep coming back to the island, the reason the story unfolds, which, to me, renders the book’s entire premise shaky.

Lulu aside, the book certainly is an absorbing summer read. Nichols transports the reader from Spain to Morocco to Paris and back seamlessly, and his subtle wit surprised me; the book isn’t billed as funny, but I found myself laughing aloud more than a few times. As an added bonus, it’s heavy enough that holding it certainly qualifies as a workout. Or at least that’s what I told myself as I attempted to balance the book in one hand, and a glass of rosé in the other.

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