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Love in Idleness by Amanda Craig


Rating: (Recommended)


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Amanda Craig expertly updates A Midsummer Night’s Dream in her new novel, Love in Idleness, using the form of an English family’s vacation in Tuscany as her backdrop. Lighthearted and playful, Love in Idleness weaves a spell over readers that brings a certain pleasure and satisfaction. Shakespeare lovers will be all the more amused, assuming that they will catch all the references to the original, not just the obvious ones that most of us clod-like readers will pick up. Here’s an excerpt (pp. 140-147):

"Look, hoopoes!" Hemani said, pointing out of the window.


"Those birds with black-and-white wings, there, flitting down the hillside. I thought you only got them in much hotter countries."

"Have you ever been back, Meenu?" Ellen asked. Hemani forbore to answer that for her, it wasn't "back."

"I went to Bombay in my gap year before university," she said. "It was beautiful, but weird. All these relations I'd never met suddenly appeared out of the woodwork. I think my parents were hoping I'd marry one of them, actually."

"You mean you could choose?"

"Oh, yes, of course," said Hemani, amused. "My parents aren’t that traditional. They only wanted what any parent wants, which was to stop me making mistakes. They had this cousin all lined up for me. But I had to go off and make them all the same."

The strangeness of this intrigued the others.

"Bron isn't a mistake," said Daniel.

"No," said Hemani with a smile, which he glimpsed in the rear mirror. He looked at her again, but she was gazing out of the window now, a slight frown between her brows. He knew, suddenly, that she was thinking about her son in the car ahead and worrying about him.

"What was he like, this cousin?" he asked, prompted by curiosity.

"He was okay, a graduate, perfectly nice, but..."

"What was wrong with him?" Ellen asked. "Not good-looking?"

"No, he was quite handsome, but the thing is, I knew perfectly well what he wanted wasn't me, but my passport"

"Yeah, right," said lvo. "Mmm, that command to let the bearer pass without let or hindrance, dead sexy."

Hemani giggled.

"That must be strange, looking at a guy and thinking, I've never met you before, but I could just marry you," said Ellen thoughtfully. "Kind of empowering."

"It's just a way of meeting someone. People meet in all sorts of strange ways," said Hemani. "It works for some. We all believe in leaving it to chance, falling in love with people you just happen to meet. No wonder it goes wrong so often."

"An arranged marriage must be simpler at least," said lvo.

"I don't know," said Daniel. "Parents are always going to have different values."

"They want someone who'll bring money and status into the family, whereas you just want someone you wont get tired of screwing," said Ellen.

There was a small shocked silence, which Ellen pretended not to notice, lvo snorted. He loved it when Americans affected sophistication; the result was always far worse than innocence.

"Its not just sex that makes a marriage work," said Hemani. As the only person present who had been married, she felt she had to say something. "Its all other things, like trust and intelligence and sharing the same sense of humour."

"Well, those come into sex, don't they?" said Ellen, giving Daniel a smile he failed to see. "At least I've always found they do."

"I don't know. The arranged marriages I've seen that work, the people are more like friends than lovers. I don't think that's enough."

"Are you saying you shouldn't be friends with your partner?" Daniel asked.

"Whenever I hear someone say that his best friend is his wife, I know they've stopped shagging. Who on earth wants to be friends? Friends are for friendship," said lvo. "A girl is for all the things you couldn't possibly do to a chum."

"Oh, for Gods sake, lvo, can it!" said Ellen in a kind of suppressed shriek. "We all know you'd be much happier living as Cro-Magnon man, dubbing us over the head and dragging us back to your cave, but you might have the tact not to gross us out about it!"

"Did I club you?" lvo said in injured tones. "Did I?"

Ellen gave a loud sigh. "No, lvo, I seem to remember that you more or less clubbed yourself"

The car gave an agonising jolt, scraping its underside on another large ridge of rock, and then they were onto smoother surfaces, sliding past vineyards.

"Love is rubbish," said Hemani, suddenly fierce. "Any idiot can fall in love, lvo's right. It doesn't take any talent, after all, and I don’t see why people are always so jolly pleased with themselves when they do it. Mostly what people mean by love is laziness. They don't really love someone, warts and all; they just decide not to notice if they're disgusting."

"Don’t you think that's what love is," said Daniel, "the not noticing?"

"How can you not notice?" said Ellen. "You know, I think that's what's different about our generation. Older people were more accepting of defects—they had to be—but we aren't. We have gyms and plastic surgery and orthodontics, stuff they never dreamt of. How can you censor yourself, if its possible to get rid of the flaws?"

She looked sideways at Daniels profile. He was better looking than a lot of male models, his face hard and angular until shadows fell on it, and then she could see gentleness, which was not something she was used to seeing in men's faces. Ellen wondered again whether this was what she really wanted, then decided it was. He wasn't a dude, but hey, what did that matter?

Frankly, she didn't want a high-profile marriage like some of her friends in fashion had.

What I want, thought Ellen, is what my parents had before Morn died. Perhaps they would have wound up like so many of her friends' parents, divorced and full of bitterness, but Ellen didn't think so. They had been the happiest couple—everyone said so—and that was an almost impossible ideal to live up to. Each time she thought. Perhaps this it, she realised. But I’ll get bored with him. She still had this hope that somehow her own life would be like her parents' had been, full of laughter and interest and adventure. Her face softened briefly. Then she shook herself. There was no point being unrealistic.

"But those things aren’t what somebody is, inside," said Daniel. "It isn't what’s essential."

He felt foolish and awkward, his discomfort shared by the others. It was one thing to discuss sex—that was intellectually respectable—but love was another matter. What was there to say about love that hadn't been said before? It was a debased coinage, something beneath the notice of intelligent people: trash.

"But how do you know that you're going to go on loving what’s essential?" asked Ellen, putting her hand on Daniels bare thigh. "You might love somebody for being essentially clever at math, only to find that person was fundamentally stupid about everything else. Also, you might get bored with that essential thing. After all, you'd get bored with eating the same food every day, wouldn't you?"

"People always use food as a metaphor for love," said lvo in a languid voice. "Its not helpful, confusing one sort of appetite with another."

Ellen shrugged. "Well, you can compare anything to any- thing, I guess."

Hemani said, "I don't think that were all there to be consumed, devoured. To me, love is more like water. You never get tired of drinking water, do you?"

"Personally, I prefer Cristal," said Ellen irritably, because Daniel had just removed her hand.

"Well, at two hundred dollars a bottle, I'm not surprised," said lvo.

"And without water, you'd die," Hemani insisted.

"Plenty of people live without love," said Daniel.

"Live, yes, in a basic sort of way. But without love, they aren’t fully alive."

lvo laughed. "I once told a girl I was mad about that she should marry me because otherwise she'd end up with only a cat to love," he said.

"She turned you down?"

lvo shrugged.

"Well, no prizes for guessing that," said Ellen. "Your seduction lines are so groovy, baby. Shouldn't we be turning right, here?"

Obediently, Daniel turned. "Have you been here before, Els?" he asked.

"No, I just spotted the sign while lvo was showing us his club. I haven't been to this part before, I'm usually over in the Marche. That's where most of the factories are."

"What, no child labour?" said lvo. "I thought you fashion people believed you were going to go bankrupt if you didn't blind at least one generation of Third World unfortunates."

"My designs are made up here, by very highly paid Italians, if you must know," said Ellen. "So sorry to disappoint you."

Ahead, the Nobles' car swished smoothly through the shimmering illusion of water on the road. Irrigation systems lifted arcs of real water to spray maize, or plantations of small trees destined for the garden centres of Europe. They passed a ruined castle, poplar woods, and lay-bys with lorries.

"Mummy, what are those black ladies doing?"

"What ladies?"

"The ones standing by the road."

Polly looked, and was appalled.

"Oh," said Betty, seeing also. "They are just ladies who need a lift."

"They're prozzies," said Bron, ignoring her.

"What are prozzies?" asked Tania.

"Now, I don't think—" began Theo, but Bron interrupted.

"Women who do sex for money."

"Sex for money, sex for money," chanted Robbie.

"Ew, gross, do they really?"

"Polly, you really must control your children," said Betty.

"Let's have a story tape," said Polly desperately. "Here, Tales from Shakespeare."

Tania groaned.

"Oh, Mum. I'm so bored with those"

"You can't possibly be bored with Shakespeare," said Polly.

"Well, I am"

"So am I," Robbie chirped.

"The comedies are okay, but the tragedies, puh-leesel" said Tania. "All those stupid people killing each other just because they get jealous or have dumb parents. I hate that stuff"

"But the comedies are also about people who get jealous, or who have stupid parents," said Polly, sensing an opportunity.

"Why do you think they turn out differently?"

Bron shrugged. "Just lucky"

"Is that what you think? Tania?"

"The funny ones have magic," said Tania reluctantly.

"They've got jokes," said Robbie.

"Yes, my angel. Jokes are a big help. And Bron is right: They are lucky. They have good people at the top. The kings decide to help the rest when they're in trouble or being bullied. In the tragedies, they don't, so it all ends badly. Allowing other people to be bullied is almost as bad as being a bully yourself"

"People can only be bullied if they allow themselves to be," said Betty. "You know?"

Several responses to this rose to Polly’s lips, and died there, as they always did. She wondered why she could never stand up to her mother-in-law. She wondered, Was it politeness? The deference due to marriage? She didn't know, but her loathing had become such that she could only laugh about it, privately, on good days.

Theo was busy negotiating a large roundabout. The countryside had petered out, to be replaced by dismal shanties and modern apartment blocks. Above them, the old city rose.

"Can anyone see anywhere to park?" asked Polly.

"No, not yet," said Theo, peering at the gaps between the cars. "Its as bad as London."

At last, having driven all the way round the town, Polly spotted a place near the base of the city walls. The others, who had been following faithfully, rejoined them.

"Where’s Theo?" asked Daniel.

"He's gone ahead with Betty."

"Ah," said Daniel, and smiled at his sister-in-law. He was concerned to see her looking dejected. Polly believed in goodness, but her goodness was not the kind that made people braver, more honest, or more active. It was the sort that is modest and efficient, that is closer to charity than love, and that is always anxious.

Craig’s dialogue rings true on every page, and the ease with which she transports us belies the effort she expended to make Love in Idleness just right. Craig avoids beating readers over the head, and allows each character to become believable and then change in what can seem to be a magical way. Anyone who’s been on a family vacation recently will find some similarities and some unfilled desires by reading Love in Idleness.

Steve Hopkins, September 23, 2003


ã 2003 Hopkins and Company, LLC


The recommendation rating for this book appeared in the October 2003 issue of Executive Times

URL for this review: in Idleness.htm


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