It’s hard to believe that this poignant examination of long marriage is Dean’s first novel, so subtly does she develop the relationships among her characters and so skillfully does she balance delight and despair. Plucking two couples—one English and elderly, one Belgian and middle-aged—from their domestic routines and planting them on holiday at a Caribbean resort, she offers a change of scene as an opportunity to determine whether each is together merely because of habit and a long-ago promise or because of some stronger bond.
Dean peels back the skin of these marriages with an unflinching lack of sentimentality and an immense talent for close observation and evocative, often poetic detail. She can reach straight into a character’s heart, damning her instantly but discreetly in a single sentence. She can redeem (albeit only momentarily) just as swiftly: “In spite of her cold and hard mind, her mother’s heart arched like a swallow making a circle of the sky, turning south for the winter.” All of Dean’s characters—the stubbornly unfashionable old English couple, the jaded European nouveaux riches, the arrogant Americans, the unpredictable Irish-by-way-of-South-Africa born-again Christian, the bumbling resort manager whose fantasies resemble car commercials—are wonderfully true to their circumstances but are also vividly and consistently themselves, not “types.”
In less skillful hands, the plot—and there is a good, strong plot—might have foundered in bathos, but Dean adroitly sticks to the high road; although she afflicts her characters with terminal cancer, Alzheimer’s, alcoholism, and adultery, these trials, rather than defining the people who suffer them, serve to reveal their fiber. The ending is unexpected, yet entirely deserved. Dean has produced an ideal novel, right out of the box.