Vickers (Where Three Roads Meet, 2008, etc.), usually adept at combining philosophy with romance, stumbles in this airless story about a British widow who travels by ocean liner to visit an old friend in New York.
Violet’s husband, a kindly lawyer she never passionately loved, has recently died, so Violet decides to splurge on a luxury sea voyage to visit her old friend Edwin, a poet she lost touch with years ago, even before he moved abroad. On board, Violet rather haughtily looks down on her fellow passengers, whom she considers boring and/or pretentious. But she is also frazzled. She’s lost her cell phone and contact list. Cowed by her well-meaning if overbearing room steward Renato, she attends a tea dance where the Italian instructor Dino (real name Des, Italian accent fake) quickly susses her out as a possible mark, a lonely woman with money. She enjoys dancing with Dino, but her mind is actually elsewhere. She’s more interested in remembering her life in the 1960s when she met Edwin. Her teacher at Cambridge, he took her under his wing and became her mentor and closest friend. Soon they moved in together, platonically since he was gay, and began a literary magazine. He encouraged her writing. But the idyll was disturbed when his old school friend Bruno showed up. Violet claimed to hate Bruno and his bullying personality, but soon they were lovers. Edwin moved to Oxford, and Violet moved in with Bruno in London. Before their terrible marriage ended badly, Bruno caused Violet to abandon Edwin in a time of need. Or so she’s believed all these years. Once she reaches New York—after a few unsurprising on-board intrigues—she learns not only that Edwin holds no ill will but also what readers have assumed—that Bruno and Edwin were lovers all along.
The unsympathetic characters are less a problem than the artificial, lifeless world Vickers forces them to inhabit.