|| 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
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,
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
"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
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
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
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
|| 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
|| 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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