Other Press, May 2015
Reviewed by Randy Rosenthal
When we’re young, we’re taught that we’ll find the right person and fall in love. We’ll marry, have children, and grow old together. But that’s not usually how it happens. We fall in love, and we fall out of love. And then we’re not even sure if we loved. We find someone else. We fall in love again. And maybe again. Andrea Gillies tackles this perennial subject of falling in and out of love in her novel The Enlightenment of Nina Findlay, which is scathingly honest, reads as if it were a work-in-translation (a compliment), and will be engaging for anyone who is interested in love.
Nina Findlay grew up in a Scottish village next to the Romano family. As a teenager, she fell in love with the wild and artistic Luca Romano, but when she laughs of his marriage proposal and he marries someone else, she ends up marrying his somber and mild brother Paolo. Twenty-five years later, Luca’s wife Francesca dies of cancer, and he moves in with Nina and Paolo, whose relationship is on the rocks. Nina sleeps with Luca, and then leaves Paolo, fleeing to the Greek island where they spent their honeymoon, twenty-five years earlier. It’s not that she’s in love with Luca, she explains, but more that it’s “an addiction.” After getting hit by a car, she’s taken to a hospital, where she meets Doctor Christos. And then her wheels start turning; the novel is composed of her conversations with Christos, in which she shares her memories of her life with the Romano brothers and the disintegrating marriage of her parents.
Nina’s mother once told her, “The trouble with falling in love is that it’s not a conscious thing, it’s not a decision. It’s a decision made for you, and isn’t always good for you.” Rather than glorifying love, Nina’s mother makes it sound like some sort of disease. And that’s how it is. Similarly, we don’t decide to fall out of love. It just happens. Or at least this is how Nina’s father explains it; he fell out of love with her mother, and then left her for someone else. At the time, Nina was devastated, but in the hospital on the Greek island she understands: “People had second relationships; they did, and sometimes they were happier the second time. Perhaps there was going to be one more opportunity for tenderness, one more offer of a hand held in life, a warm hand held tightly in the street in the brutally disinterested world.”
With this in mind, she considers Doctor Christos, who so interested in her that he suggests Nina move to the island and live with him. She’s not totally sure if she’s ready to cut Paolo off and divorce him, or go to Luca, but Christos makes a convincing argument for himself: “Imagine being with someone new. Someone you have no bad memories with. No self-delusion. No past arguments. No awful days you have to pretend didn’t happen. No papering over cracks and hoping for the best and suspecting the paper won’t hold. None of that. Zero. No shadows.”
It’s certainly a convincing point. But when Paolo finds out about Nina’s accident, he comes to the island to be with her. He doesn’t want her to move there, to move on and be with Christos. And this is what Paolo says: “Faced with a choice between safety, walking away, or trying again and maybe failing, I’d choose failure. I would.”
When he says this, it’s a conviction. But when Nina hears it, it’s more of a realization. Or maybe even an enlightenment.