PRIMAVERA
 

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1 The allegorical figures in Botticelli's "Primavera", observes Nicki, one of the four central characters in Stevie Davies's accomplished second novel, "inhabit the marginal area of blessedness, where to be old is no disqualification from the ravishments of springtime, and growth through the delinquencies of love is always extravagantly possible". Set in contemporary Florence, Pennsylvania and Bradford, Primavera successfully exploits the painting as a symbol of the renaissance of desire that disrupts Jack and Maureen Middleton's grudge-ridden, forty-five-year-old marriage in the last three years of Jack's life. Standing before Botticelli's paintings in the Uffizi, in the company of the English girl Jenny, Jack, the crusty old Pennsylvanian patriarch, is abruptly transformed. At sixty-eight Jack finds that his love for the "boy-girl" Jenny exposes the past, present and imminent selves making up his identity. At sixty-four Maureen sheds her mantle of dignity, her stifling role as a "great lady", and eventually succumbs to what she perceives as an anachronistic and obscene need for her neighbour, Nicki. But the past cannot lightly be thrown off. When in England visiting Jenny, Jack tries to pretend his "lifetime allegiances" to wife, children and grandchildren can be severed. But ghostly wedding guests still dance on the cold grass and the "gnarled, twisted, impotent, life-guaranteeing" root of love welds him to Maureen in a state of perpetual misunderstanding, pain and lack.

The Freudian "family romance" of sublimated desire, rejection and taboo haunts the book: Jack appeals to the orphaned Jenny, "Let me be your mother and father"; the Middletons each want "a woman" in a sexual expression of the impossible yearning for "Mother". This potent word elides with "father" to embody an inexpressible sense of loss, an essential but crucially ungendered "lack" at the heart of human existence. In the final part of the book, as Jack grasps at language and life after a stroke, the reader enters a world "nude of designation . . . obscenely free of meaning", a terrifying but temporary exile to a perverted, post-linguistic Imaginary.

Botticelli's "Primavera" colours the novel's tragicomedy with flashes of detail: Jenny's shabby green cardigan; Maureen's white night-gown and "lemon-yellow" blouse; this same yellow blending with glowing turquoise to form the hues of a Pennsylvanian spring, and so on. Yet the graceful sensitivity of the "dance" shifts abruptly to become powerfully raw, with undertones of violence, when the jealousy, insecurity and contrariness of each character momentarily surface – reflecting the overarching shade and the sinister excess of the tableau.

The novel is liberating in its resistance to the paunches and piles, arthritis and sciatica of old age: the "loose, flabby flesh dropping away from the bone" that makes Maureen recoil from herself. Spring moves inescapably through "fall" to winter; by the end all four lovers are redefined by the arrival of children and grandchildren; "plump Jack" is banished and the ancien régime restored in the brutal destruction of the snow king. None the less, this reimposition is challenged by the invigorating transgressions that have gone before, as only Jenny recognizes – "Nothing is Lost".
  Times Literary Supplement

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2

"Art and life have painfully little in common," ponders Jack in the first few pages of Primavera. Such an embarrassingly bold statement of theme at this stage in a novel could only be there to be disproved. This is the last unsubtle move Davies makes.

The novel centres round an ageing couple, Jack and Maureen, and Primavera, the painting by Botticelli which they see in Florence at the beginning of the story. Its vibrancy releases a freedom of expression in Jack, who there and then falls in love with Jenny, a young bi-sexual from Bradford. At home in Pennsylvania, Maureen begins an intense relationship with her neighbour, Nicki, a lesbian half her age.

It is a brave second novel. Through Jack and Maureen's new relationships, Davies takes an epic journey back through their minds, which are filled with repression and disappointment. Jack's underlying homosexuality (he is attracted to Jenny partly because of her boyish looks) tends to override Maureen's hidden motivation, her unrequited love for her dead mother, but both are useful for exposing the hypocrisy of middle-class American life.

As a novel about old age, it is both original and poignant. The couple's open relationship provides the tragi-comic backdrop for the book; Jack's increasing creative excuses for nipping across the Atlantic to Bradford are amusing to Maureen and to us, but the harm the couple have inflicted on each other over the years is painful to unravel. Nevertheless, they remain dependent on one another. Whether this is admirable or appalling is left open to question.

As a novel about women (it is published by the Women's Press), it could be criticised for placing Jack centre stage. But for the female characters in the novel, he is largely a sounding board which they eventually have no use for. The final theme shows Nicki's children demolishing the snowman they have just built, shouting: "The king is dead! Vive la liberté!" If Botticelli's painting was the catalyst for change, then the toppling snowman indicates the effects of that change; the old order has been ousted.

Davies, however, avoids turning her women into victims or stereotypes. Maureen is a misunderstood wife and the perfect mother, but she is initially as secretive and emotionally restrained as her husband, and he suffers at her hands as much as she suffers at his. The introduction half-way through of the inappropriately-named Serena, an ageing, sexually voracious novelist who eventually finds solace with a man, indicates that Davies does not completely discount the possibility of happiness existing between men and women.

Like To the Lighthouse, the novel is structured round the changing seasons, and Jack and Maureen's idyllic country house, which changes the lives of all who visit it. Both these devices allow the author ample opportunity to indulge in descriptive passages full of natural imagery.

Stevie Davies's first novel, Boy Blue, won the Fawcett Society prize last year. Primavera proves that it was not just a flash in the pan.

  The Scotsman

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3

In the early pages of her novel, which describes itself as a story of 'transformation', Davies tells us that the dominating elderly American, Jack and his long-suffering wife Maureen, both want a woman. Jack, a composer remains pathetically attached to his wife of 40 years, who effectively replaced the mother he lost as a child. Maureen remains the 'loyal wife' but her emotions and sexuality lie elsewhere.

Within the first chapter, Jack and Maureen get what they want. Jack meets painter Jenny in front of Botticelli's Primavera at the Uffizi Gallery while on holiday in Florence. And back in Pennsylvania, Maureen falls in love with her neighbour Nicki. What transpires is not so much the story of a woman's liberation from a dead marriage, a lesbian romance or even an illustration of the possibility of new love at an old age.

Despite the emotional depth of this novel and the pathos that surround all its protagonists, it is actually most convincing as a highly original satire. Comedy is what gives Primavera its momentum and makes it well worth the read. A prize-winning novelist, Davies has a rare talent for deflating her characters' illusions to hilarious effect without crushing them altogether.

None of Davies' characters are straightforward or stereotypical. Jack at once buffoon-like and tender hearted commutes between Pennsylvania and Bradford where Jenny lives. Jenny has lost control of her son to her macho ex-husband, South African Alex. He calls Jenny a 'scandalous mother' who 'had no idea how to please a man', the vile Alex, alone of all Davies' creations is ridiculed without mercy.

If you read this novel predominantly for its political message, however, you will be disappointed. Although suffused with compassion, Jenny's situation is made comic, rather than tragic and provides food for some sharp social satire. Particularly funny are the scenes in which the hapless Jenny takes her son and his prep-school companion to her shabby attic flat for the weekend. Does she actually live here, the companion can't help asking, despite having been programmed by his parents not to pose any awkward questions about her poverty and single-motherhood.

Meanwhile Maureen casts off the echo of her deceased mother's reprobatory 'Be your age' to find love in Nicki's arms. Suddenly, this grandmother of 12 is herself a child again and Jack can only look on bemused.

As the pairs of lovers are pulled in different directions and their affairs flounder, the plot becomes unfocused as if Davies were not herself clear about their motives.

Maureen loves Nicki passionately but returns to Jack, unable to relinquish her role as matriarch. Jenny loves Jack but decides, inexplicably, that she cannot both have him and regain custody of her child. Only Jack's motives for returning to his wife are clear. He cannot give up 'mother'. And Maureen disappears entirely into this role when illness leaves Jack helpless in her hands.

At the end of the novel I was left confused as to whether Davies had presented a radical or just a tolerant view of human relationships. Because despite the liberated tone of the novel throughout, marriage is its enduring theme.

  Spare Rib

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4 The lives of an elderly American couple and young English woman are forever changed after a chance meeting in front of Botticelli's Primavera in Florence. Each enters an unexpected spring of hope, joy and love when the old man and young girl embark on a transatlantic affair and the old lady is seduced by a 40-year-old female neighbour. The relationships are explored with all the subtlety at the command of this highly original writer, who has an extraordinary insight into the workings of the human mind and emotions. This second novel is less consistently compelling than Davies's prize-winning first novel, but is enjoyable and often fascinating.
  The Times (paperback reviews)

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5 Primavera is vernal and blooming. It distills the radiance of the Botticelli painting of its title, which it liberally bestows on its aging characters as a rejuvenating elixir... Davies' novel is as charming and evanescent as a masque.
  The Observer
 

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This entire presentation Copyright © Stevie Davies