When you are reading a novel do you think how much you enjoy a story is colored by the likeableness of the characters? Sometimes the best stories have some of the least likable characters. Or maybe I should say some of the most interesting stories have nicely "complex" characters. Jennifer Johnston's The Gingerbread Woman has two of the most prickliest protagonists I have come across in a long while. Granted they each have every reason to be bristly and snappish. This is a story of two very unlikely people who have suffered tragedies in their lives coming together, orbiting each other in a most unruly manner and then pinging apart, but all the better in the end for having crossed paths.
One rainy afternoon Clara is looking out over Dublin Bay, so close to the edge is she that a man walking by with his dog calls out to her thinking to stop her from taking a leap. Actually Clara is only in a contemplative sort of mood, reflecting on her life and poor luck, but Lar is not to know that. An Irishman from the North he has come to Dublin, well, run away from his life really, to escape his sympathetic parents. Each is damaged either physically or psychologically (maybe both), neither is looking for help or sympathy, but their testy introduction is the start of, friendship might be too strong a description, an encounter that will begin to bring them out of their grief.
Clara, moving in a fog of self-pity, assured by her doctor that she is "post-operative" and really must be kinder to herself, is a lecturer of Irish Literature and is working on a book (or so she tells her anxious mother, so she might as well get a real start). Lar is a mathematics teacher who was once married but has lost his wife and child, so has packed up his dog pansy and headed south to try and run away from his memories. Neither is terribly successful at shedding those emotions. Sorry to rely on a cliché but each has loved deeply and lost, and what remains is the bitter aftertaste of anger and grief.
Their stories are revealed in alternating voices. Clara's is told through the book she is writing, called The Gingerbread Woman. And Lar reflects on the tragedy that cost him his happiness as he recalls life before the event and life after. In his mind he sees and remembers that lost life. It takes both most of the book to come full circle and share the climactic moment and then the reader is privy to it all before the other character understands the cause of their grief. After running into each other on their daily walks Clara invites Lar for coffee and then curiously (and maybe more for poor Pansy's sake since she must camp out in Lars's car since the hotel won't allow dogs) she offers him a room--but only very temporarily.
I'm not really sure either even likes the other. They most grate along, but each has a sort of restrained respect for the other. And maybe those abrasive encounters is just what the other needs. All very pared down emotionally and unsentimental advice one offers the other, which is not always appreciatively received. And I'm not entirely sure how the story makes me feel. There is a sense of a resolution of sorts, though I'm not sure I would call the ending a happy one. Forward-looking, perhaps? I'm not sure what exactly I was expecting from this story, but it was certainly interesting in the telling. I do like Jennifer Johnston's storytelling abilities. This is the third novel by her I have read (perhaps my least favorite to be honest). I loved her How Many Miles to Babylon (which I have read twice now) and was suitably impressed by Truth or Fiction to know I wanted to read more of her work (she is prolific). I have more of her work on my shelves, and certainly reading The Gingerbread Woman was not time wasted, but I do look forward to a novel that resonates a bit more next time around.
This was my March prompt book, though I am indulging a little by squeezing in William Trevor's Nights at the Alexandra, which I started reading last night and am quite enjoying. I have given April's possibilities (Paris in April) a little thought, but I haven't yet made a choice. Of course choosing is half the fun.