Spring: A Novel

Insecurity and uncertainty rule the day in David Szalay's third novel, Spring, which zeroes in on an uneasy, fledgling relationship between two woefully up-in-the-air thirty-somethings in present-day London. Canadian-born Szalay, anointed one of the twenty best British novelists under forty by The Telegraph in 2010, doesn't shy away from anything, including awkward sex, in his vivisection of this unpromising affair. The result is an intense portrait of the challenging complexity of really connecting with someone. In some ways it's like a bleak answer to Alain de Botton's On Love, a more playful, whimsical novel about the often painful vicissitudes of romantic relationships.

Szalay's main character, James, is a born entrepreneur and risk taker who has made and lost several fortunes since he decided to skip university at seventeen -- including, on paper at least, a multimillion-pound killing on an Internet startup that succumbed to the dot-com bust. Now he's involved in shady horse racing fixes, though he finds himself no longer yearning for extravagant wealth so much as middle-class stability, even in his personal life. Unfortunately, he's a poor judge of character. This leads him into business dealings with a stalker; a sleazy, ultra-conservative horse trainer; and a self-destructive misfit schoolmate. It also contributes to his persistent, hopeless pursuit of skittish Katherine Persson, a Cambridge University graduate who is currently working in a posh Park Lane hotel, in a dissatisfying managerial job that's intellectually beneath her, with vague hopes of someday opening her own resort. Katherine, separated from her philandering photographer husband, Fraser King -- whom she met while he was staking out a celebrity in the hotel lobby -- is uncertain how she feels about Fraser or James.

James worries constantly "that things are not okay," his moods fluctuating with Katherine's willingness to see him. Even when she is brutally honest about her wishy-washy feelings, James somehow fails to recognize that things are neither okay nor destined to be. She dodges his kisses and pares down planned weekends together to "the pathetic rind of Sunday evening." Worse, she greets his early confession of love with a series of sighs and "several frozen seconds" of silence before responding, "I can't say the same, James. I can't say the same." Szalay captures both the clueless nature of infatuation (love is blind) and a disconnection so profound that nothing transmits between this couple without static and distortion.

Fortunately, flashbacks to Katherine's initial passion for her husband and James's high-flying days whizzing around town in a new Aston while checking in on his bankers and tech teams "to make sure everything was okay" let some air into what might otherwise be a suffocating narrative. So, too, do deft switches among the various characters' perspectives, including that of the morally bankrupt horse trainer, who seems to have wandered in from a Dick Francis novel.

As T. S. Eliot noted in "The Waste Land," there's a cruelty to spring, "mixing / Memory and desire." Szalay turns vernal rejuvenation into a source of further sadness, "the way everything is moving on, starting something new." Even the changeable spring weather is, like Katherine, "still making up its mind what to do." This study of frustration and ambivalence -- of a woman who worries about passion being a thing of the past for her and a man unable to feel his feelings, never mind express them -- is insightful but (sigh) depressing.

April 19: "What you see first, after the starting gun's crack, is a column of bobbing runners, thousands of them, surging downhill..."

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