Now that I’m getting more and more ideas for finding books from The New Yorker, rather than from The New York Times Book Review, from the one-page section titled”Briefly Noted”, I’m finding a plethora of excellent novels often not reviewed elsewhere. Tender, by Belinda McKeon, is one such novel, and it’s one of the loveliest, and best written, novels of 2016 so far.
McKeon’s territory in this book is, indeed, tender, as her title suggests. The novel takes place at Trinity College in Dublin–college days and friends made (or lost), and lessons learned (or not) is always fertile territory for a writer, as they are such formative years. The novel is dominated by two characters, the narrator, Catherine, whom we meet as a freshman from a small town in Ireland, and James, who’s not a student there, but whose two female friends happen to be Catherine’s roommates. When we meet James, he’s just returned from a year in Berlin, where he’s been studying with a well-known photographer there, while also trying to hone his own skills with that medium. The very garrulous, charming, and verbally clever James meets Catherine when he’s just back from Berlin; it’s his room she’s been living in whilst he was in Berlin. Returning to see his two women friends, Catherine’s roommates, James and Catherine have one of those instant connections not uncommon in college years, and they begin to hang out together all the time. The main problem, or paradox, in their increasingly romantic relationship, as at least Catherine sees it, is that James is gay, which in Ireland until very recently was illegal. James’ agony over his sexuality and the kind of life he may or may not live is an enormous subtext of this lovely novel. Catherine is convinced that she and James can make it as a romantic couple–and that explosive dynamic becomes the novel’s main area of development. McKeon’s characters are brilliantly rendered, including the 6 or so secondary characters who are all friends of Catherine’s, and, eventually, of James. Catherine finds it possibly amusing, but certainly sophisticated, to talk about men with James, and their friends, who also know that James is gay, are trying to help him find a guy whom he can safely date and become part of their little literary/artistic crowd. It’s made clear early by the author that James may be a seriously gifted photographer, as well; Catherine’s studying art history and English literature.
We will meet Catherine’s family, as well as James’; both families are skeptical and suspicious, Catherine’s mother, in particular, is worried about this commitment to James: she doesn’t know that he’s gay, but knows something’s up, and James’ mother fantasizes Catherine marrying James, and thus “curing” him of his attraction to men. Those who’ve spent any significant times in the arts will recognize this quandry, a not uncommon one within and amongst people in the arts; the derogatory (and occasionally flattering, I think, term “fag hag” is new to Catherine, of course). Catherine overprotects James, tries to convert him, uses the many ploys that people in these positions have been in since time immemorial, I suspect, and, of course, all will explode in her face as James does indeed find a man whom he can comfortably date/hang with, and Catherine can’t accept this, so she tries to wreck that relationship. Ten years will go by before these two people, who really do love one another, will meet briefly in New York, both well along in careers in the arts, though James has indeed become famous, Catherine writes for Frieze, the well known art magazine. I think that McKeon is trying to have her readers determine whether or not this early love of Catherine’s has disallowed her from loving other men “normally” (quotes mine, but deliberate).
McKeon’s writing style, gentle and quiet rather than bombastic and noisy, makes the novel and the issues it raises seem utterly timeless, which indeed they may be. And we the readers know that a romantic relationship between Catherine and James cannot work, isn’t meant to, and isn’t what James wants anyway. But it’s probable that Catherine’s existence in James’ life during her college days may well have kept James afloat emotionally, given him a base of support that he’s never had before; I do believe that Catherine has become his Muse: the different emotional supports each gives the other when young may have helped each become who each does become, but, much like the movie The Way We Were, which has different types of problems between its two main characters (played by Streisand and Redford), we readers know that this relationship cannot work, but we also cannot deny how it helps create the adult Catherine and the adult James. When these two attend an art opening, their first ‘grown-up’ one, and get invited to the afterparty, where Catherine sees James and another man clearly attracted to one another, Catherine continues to pretend that such follies won’t matter, that she can handle these things, not understanding that James doesn’t want a romantic relationship with Catherine, can’t even if he did.
McKeon’s not claiming that tragedy’s afoot, more growing up’s the issue. Her characterizations are so splendid, her dialogue so exceptional, her settings so nearly theatrical (she also is a playwright, I learned from the book jacket), and her issues both so contemporary and so ancient, that Tender is one of those novels that seems both of its time and timeless, and it’s written with sophistication and empathy and understanding, and makes a beautiful addition to contemporary literature increasingly interested in addressing issues raised by being gay in the world in which we live. And there’s not a single flaw in the characters, the writing, the mood, the prose: this is a beautiful novel, often poetic, and always inspired.