The Forgotten Waltz

  • Anne Enright
  • W.W. Norton
  • 263 pp.

A story of desire, and the wreckage left in the wake of an on-again/off-again affair.

Reviewed by Barbara Esstman

The editor’s back cover blurb describes The Forgotten Waltz as “a haunting story of desire,” but Gina Moynihan’s desire for Sean Vallely, whom she calls “my downfall, my destiny,” seems more sad than haunting in terms of how disconnected the lovers remain and how much wreckage they leave in their wake. She meets him at a party given by her sister and brother-in-law and witnesses a brief moment between Sean, his wife Aileen and their daughter, Evie, who is described by Gina as somewhere between “always special” and “a bit peculiar.” Although not at first impressed with Sean, Gina meets him again when he is hired as a consultant at her workplace, and during an otherwise uneventful meeting she becomes obsessed. She describes Sean as “a man I would cross the street to avoid at nine o’clock ― by nine twenty-five I wanted to fuck him until he wept.”

They have a fling, notable for its lack of conversation and for sex that “was a bit too actual, if you know what I mean.” She complains that he was too slow about it, clocking in at half an hour, which to most women would seem like a good thing. But here follows my favorite part of the novel, a wonderful description of that heat and madness that comes with a new relationship, especially an unsure one complicated by a rigid wife, a difficult child and a lover who is distant and cryptic at best. Gina stalks him, waits frantically for him to get in contact and sits outside his house to “be close to him” and “discover if they still slept, Aileen and Sean, in the same room.”

Gina and Sean begin an on-again/off-again affair, complicated by the disintegration of her marriage to the congenial but prosaic Conor, Aileen’s status as wife, Evie’s seizures and more disturbing puberty, the death of Gina’s mother, the financial issues attached to blowing two households out of the water and, curiously, Sean’s apparent (to me, at least) emotional distance and reluctance to get on with it. Gina takes to sleeping in her dead mother’s house, though she can only bear to make love with Sean in her sister’s room. She occasionally mulls over how time changes perceptions. For example, she says of Sean, following their first tryst, “I did not love him. I was slightly repulsed by him … If you ask me now, of course, I would say I was crazy about him from that first glance.”

For various reasons, among them that awareness does not seem to affect Gina’s actions, the center of this book, if there is one, does not hold. Both Conor and Sean, and Gina’s reasons for ever being with either of them, are vague. Sean, especially, seems radically underdeveloped as a character for his major role in the protagonist’s life and the plot of this book. Gina shies away from saying she loves either man, and when she does, she fails to define that term in a clear way that would make sense of what little readers can observe of those relationships. As with other aspects of this book, I felt that I was being told and not shown crucial facts and that some important scenes and moments were missing. For example, Gina’s the adult child of an alcoholic, and so I tried to parse out her psychology based on the fact that as such she might be emotionally sketchy.  But I couldn’t get this or any other theory to play through consistently.

I was also mystified by the title, since it seems a romantic ploy at odds with the chapter titles, which were mainly 1960s pop songs tonally dissonant with forgotten waltzing and not particularly pertinent to the chapters themselves. But then, several other technical aspects of this novel struck me as off: most notably the intro that hypes Evie’s role in the affair of her father and Gina but fails to carry through convincingly, the way the child in Atonement successfully does; and the first-person point of view that fails to give a tight fix on Gina and then forces the narrative to awkwardly backtrack and Gina and the reader to guess at some important character and plot turns.

I suppose I was to find some sort of catharsis in the suggestion that Gina will forge a relationship with Evie, or that they will declare a truce, or that her maternal instincts will miraculously flower. But I couldn’t assemble the disparate sidebars of the plot to arrive at a cohesive belief in Gina’s emotional growth.  Instead, I was left wondering why she so docilely agrees to drive all of Sean’s carpools and why she calls this cypher of a man “the love of her life” when I haven’t seen much evidence of love beyond sexual attraction and dysfunctional obsession. I’m not sure what to make of what she tells me. Is she an unreliable narrator? Is this a brilliant recreation of an emotionally muddled psyche and I’m missing the point? Or is Gina’s psyche just too muddled to connect with and care about?

I’ve loved other books, like Under the Volcano and Disgrace, that made me care about difficult, desperado characters and that brought their stories to tough but satisfying ends. Anne Enright’s previous novel, The Gathering, won the 2007 Mann Booker Prize, no small feat and a tribute to her strong writing chops. But for all its gorgeous prose, on-target observations and lovely turns of phrase, The Forgotten Waltz seems, like one of its characters, to have “nothing wrong … except for this thing that was wrong.”

Barbara Esstman is the author of The Other Anna and Night Ride Home. She teaches writing workshops at The Writer’s Center in Bethesda, Md., and McLean, Va.

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