Lola Lemire Tostevin
Lola Lemire Tostevin's second novel, The Jasmine Man, is told in authorial fits and starts. Tostevin's main character, Amelia Legate GTrard, married to an associate professor/psychoanalyst, lives a life troubled by insecurity and lack of direction. She wants to study art history, but can't get herself to do anything about it. She wants to go to Paris with her husband, Gilles, but is unmotivated once she is there. She loves her husband, but she wants to have an affair with a stranger.
For the first 100 pages, this story tumbles around like laundry in a dryer with digressions on astrolabes, angels with leather wings and home-made marital beds which throw the reader off from what the story is really about: During their fifth year of marriage, Gilles decides to take a working sabbatical in Paris, and Amelia (or Amy, or AimTe), and their young son, Jonathan, come along, promising to "stay out of his hair." Bored and lost in her life, Amelia allows herself to be charmed by a handsome Tunisian stranger who courts her on a park bench. Coincidentally, he happens to live in her building; he also happens to be a babysitter (so they use him for their son, suddenly), and Amelia and Gilles just happen to have already planned a trip to Tunisia for their summer holiday. When they get there, Gilles has to leave Amelia for several weeks alone in Tunisia while he goes back to Paris and finishes off some business, allowing just enough time for Habib, the handsome stranger, to come and make lots of love to Amelia in his absence.
Once author Tostevin awkwardly puts all that information in place, the book settles into the comfortable unreality of the affair. Wonderful chunks of story surface, such as the trip Amelia, Habib, Jonathan and several others take to a Tunisian desert, or when Amelia spends a night with her neighbors Chafia and Wassila drinking wine and telling fantastic Tunisian tales. But none of it is enough to mitigate the affair for the reader, who follows Amelia through her mindless, sensualist free-for-all with exasperation and disbelief.
Finally, after several weeks, her husband returns to Tunisia and finds out about the affair. Amelia calmly admits it, and without much struggle, he forgives her. They go back to Paris.
The remainder of The Jasmine Man finds Amelia acting questionably (like taking off her clothes for some dirty old man in the park for money so Habib can return to Paris), and yet claiming to act purely (like stating she saved her marriage for the children), saying she is strong-minded when Tostevin has already established that she is weak, and so on, returning us to the confusion which littered the beginning chapters.
In spite of all the pretty words and images which stud this book, it seems, for the most part, that the author is trying to understand the story herself. Without strong guidance from Tostevin, nothing is clear (or purposely unclear, as it could be in such a story) to Amelia or, unfortunately, to the reader. With another draft, perhaps the author could have created a tighter, more plausible package. ò
Julie Chibbaro is a Montreal writer currently at work on a novel called White Indians. She has written for the Montreal Gazette, The Prague Post, and other Internet and print venues.