“Is true love possible between men and women?” asks the protagonist of this earnest second full-length fiction from the British screenwriter (Shadowlands, Gladiator) and novelist (The Society of Others, 2005).
The questioner is John “Bron” Dearborn, a writer of sorts who’s dismissed by his London flatmate (and former lover) Anna, just as he’s been commissioned to compose a book about the phenomenon of love at first sight. While staying with a friend in Devon, Bron experiences an epiphanic rapture upon sighting distractingly beautiful Flora Freeman (his fellow house guest)—a moment Bron instantly likens to the similar experience undergone by his book’s central subject: the fictional French Post-Impressionist Paul Marotte. Helplessly smitten, Bron courts the mercurial Flora (the itinerant wife of a rich older husband, who’s either endlessly indulgent or utterly indifferent to her). But she keeps sending mixed signals, first responding to Bron’s ardor, then quickly retreating from him. Help is offered by E.F. “Freddy” Christiansen, an independently wealthy Marotte scholar-collector—and Flora’s old friend—who also aids Bron’s researches, and arranges a rendezvous at his home in Switzerland, where Bron learns bitter lessons about the elusiveness of love and the difficulty of authenticating what our deepest instincts tell us must be real. The novel begins sluggishly, and marches somewhat stolidly in place, until Freddy’s Machiavellian posturing adds some much-needed malicious humor. Nicholson deftly layers in allusions to famous lovers (e.g., Bacall and Bogart, Victorian adventurer Richard Burton and his Isabell) who fit Bron’s thesis, and builds a beguiling house of cards surrounding the indistinct figures of Marotte and his beloved subject, English governess Kate Summer. But it’s all a setup, and neither the novel’s unsurprising payoff nor its annoyingly phony happy ending justify the redundant oversimplifications that lead up to them.
Moderately engaging, here and there. But there’s no real passion in it, and the end result is tepid.