Vacationing at a lush Caribbean resort, two couples meet incidentally and act out the small dramas of their marriages, both relationships honed on habit and recriminations. At an elegant resort that caters to every need of paying customers, both couples will be confronted with the states of their marriages, exposed in stark relief against a tropical paradise.
The Northern European Degroot’s have been sent on holiday by their grown sons. Although Jan DeGroot is dying of cancer, he has gamely fought its determined advance for the last six years: “The knife-and-forking of his body seemed to give a perverse impetus to his will to survive.” Jan’s wife, Annemieke, still attractive but desperate in the face of her fading beauty, has long been trapped in her own discontent, almost anxious to get on with the rest of her life.
In contrast, the English vacationers, George and Dorothy, have been married nearly sixty years, burdened with daily bickering, nonsensical arguments that neither is prepared to forego. While Dorothy drifts through the days distracted by her own musings, George offers a more honest appraisal of their shared years: “You couldn’t tell him that there was any marriage that wasn’t equal measure love and hate.” Even now, Dorothy is increasingly distant and withdrawn from her husband and the world around her.
George makes friends with Jan DeGroot, though Dorothy and Annemieke could hardly be less compatible. Yet the heightened awareness of distance confers a flavor of friendship, at least for the men, who are surprisingly sympathetic to one another as they exchange stories and disappointments, lingering over drinks. While Jan and George sort through memories, making plans for the future, limited though it may be, Annemieke thrashes about in an effort to avoid her own shortcomings.
Each couple labors under the detritus of years of marriage, unwilling to release their petty rivalries and jealousies, silences and resentments, trapped in paradise with a supporting cast of other resort-goers: a South African fundamentalist with a penchant for honesty who has a short fling with Annemieke; a long-haired, tattooed tile-setter; and “the Americans,” who demand their needs be instantly attended, their mutual flaws and eccentricities stark against the lush background of the Caribbean resort.
My one disappointment with this novel - and it is significant - is that the author didn’t trust her characters to evolve within the framework of their moral dilemmas. At the introduction of a character who speaks of God’s intentions and passes judgment on the others, although he has no problem sleeping with Annemieke, the group of vacationers happily follow this pied piper’s directions. This simplistic proselytizing is jarring and interferes with the fluid grace of the novel to that point, the author unable to resist lecturing her readers in what would have been a five-star novel.