Elizabeth Smither’s latest novel, Loving Sylvie, interweaves the stories of three generations of women: Isobel Lehmann, her daughter Madeleine, and her granddaughter Sylvie. Narrated in third person omniscient, the story fluctuates between past and present, thereby portraying the continuous vulnerability of each character. The women’s stories not only take place in different periods in time, but also in three prominent cities: Paris, Melbourne, and Auckland.
Loving Sylvie centres on the intricate joys and challenges of parental, filial, and marital relations, as well as its accompanying aspirations, regrets, and secrets. The story opens with the wedding of Sylvie Lehmann to Ben Taverner. Although the fancy ceremony is over, the bittersweet journey of marriage has only begun.
The novel delves into the lives and marriages of each woman. Isobel still regrets a decision she made during her marriage to her husband Kit. Madeline works for Madame Récamier in a Parisian bookshop, Le Livre Bleu. She leaves a young Sylvie in Isobel’s hands. Believing that “settling down” might remedy the wounds of several failed relationships in the past, Madeleine marries Freddie Rice, a man twenty years her senior. Not having her own mother to talk to, the newlywed Sylvie struggles with academic work and part-time jobs. Most significantly, she struggles to connect with her antagonistic mother-in-law, Cora. Having lost her own husband when Ben was just a toddler, Cora too has had her own hardships and bouts of loneliness.
This novel is yet another stellar work from a former New Zealand Poet Laureate. I highly commend Smither’s use of intertextual allusions. She colours each character’s psyche with a wide array of literary references, from Classical to Shakespearean and contemporary fiction. Her attention to detail is evident in her fond descriptions of the simple, yet often overlooked, delights in life: coffee, fruit, kind neighbours, lovable pets, and books. Moreover, the story elucidates the often quiet aspects of the human condition, whatever is mostly unsaid yet forms a tempest in the interior: hopelessness, frustration, and deep yearning.
Loving Sylvie is a truly heart-warming story that would be perfect for any reader this winter.
Reviewed by Azariah Alfante
by Elizabeth Smither
Allen & Unwin NZ