On the Way to Ithaca
by Peter Nichols
Riverhead Books, 2015
reviewed by Seana Graham
I’m getting this up a little later in the day than usual, but as The Rocks makes a terrific summer read, I thought it might be best to review while there’s still a fair amount of August left. One of the great strengths of this novel is its evocation of the Mediterranean island of Mallorca and environs, and if you weren’t able to get away on a Mediterranean cruise this summer, you may find this book an acceptable substitute. Nichols spent part of his youth on Mallorca, and as a knowledgeable sailor who once crossed the Atlantic alone in a wooden boat, he knows the sea as well.
Our story opens at an unusual point, which is to say, near the end. An elderly man and woman inadvertently have an encounter that they’ve more or less avoided for half a century, even though living in the same town on the same small island. This encounter will be decisive and it all happens in the first six pages. So what’s the rest of the book about?
It’s about the past. We won’t get to find out about the incident which divided the couple while they were still on their long ago honeymoon until the end of the novel. It’s a story that takes us further and further back in time. As with David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, I’m not so sure that the unusual structure is strictly necessary, and the novel might work as well in more straightforward fashion, but I found it interesting to see not just these two antagonists regress to the time of both their love and their conflict, but everyone else involved do so as well. There is both power and poignancy in knowing who the characters will become and what will happen to them before they are themselves aware of their fates. To some extent it mirrors the way we experience any life that has come before our own.
Each section takes us back to an earlier time period, but not all these periods center around Gerald and Lulu. In the intervening years, Gerald and Lulu have married other people and each has had a child, Lulu a son, Luc, and Gerald a daughter, Aegina. Despite their parents’ estrangement, Luc and Aegina have known each other all their lives, or all their summer lives, and they too have a romance that wants to happen but for various reasons, so far has failed to ignite.
I have seen a couple of complaints on GoodReads about this book by people who have gotten confused by the large cast of characters, or felt resentment about the lives of the ‘idle rich’, and some people have been offended by a scene early on between Lulu and…well, someone else. But there are actually very few rich people in the book, everyone pretty much has to work for a living and some even have to make hard economic choices. If you get confused by who is what to whom in a long, somewhat complex story, just write their connections down as you go. And as for Lulu, well, judging from his interviews, I don’t think it was ever Nichols’ intention to put her up on a pedestal. And she’s not the only character in the book who can be seen as predatory here. She just happens to be the only female one.
I, for one, really enjoyed Nichols’s depiction of island life, his prose style, and the intriguing and, yes, suspenseful tale he has set down for us.