Anne Enright: The Forgotten Waltz

Anne Enright’s last novel was published to no fanfare at all (though some noticed it), and went on to win the Booker Prize. I liked The Gathering on balance – just about, I think – but my main issue with it was an unexpected one. Normally I would be dismissive of those who reject a book for not having likeable characters; with The Gathering, it wasn’t so much that I thought the narrator Veronica ridiculous and risible, but that I was fairly sure Enright didn’t intend her to be so. I hadn’t intended to read her next novel until I read wild praise for it from trustworthy sources.

The Forgotten Waltz, in other words, carried expectations both high and low. Perhaps the experience of The Gathering softened me up for it (I had better note that I couldn’t even finish the baroque sentences of Enright’s earlier novel The Pleasure of Eliza Lynch). Here the language is plainer, the character no less spiky, the result more purely pleasurable. This is not to say that Enright makes any concessions. Again she presents not a character or caricature but a real person, a real woman relating the tangle and contradictions of real life. She has no interest in charming the reader or attracting sympathy (though that is a disarming quality in itself).

The value of Enright’s writing is to take on the task of making the most hackneyed subject matter into a necessary work. She has written the story of a love affair. Partly what distinguishes it is its setting, around and after the Ireland’s great property crash of 2008 and beyond. The financial crisis, probably the biggest boom-to-bust in Europe after Iceland’s, affected families in Ireland as only money can, but for Enright it is reinforcing, not causative. Her narrator, Gina, an IT professional in her early 30s, is married to Conor (“The internet was made for Conor: the way he was always interested but could never settle on one thing”) when she meets Seán. Seán is much older and no looker – “not exactly a siren song” – but in the usual unexplainable way, gradually and then suddenly, they begin an affair. It is sexy but unromantic. After their first “adultery – I didn’t know what else to call it,” Gina feels “suicidal. Or the flip side of suicidal: I felt like I had killed my life, and no one was dead. On the contrary, we were all twice as alive.”

What else distinguishes this book? Scott Pack said “there really is no difference between this and the many volumes of ‘commercial women’s fiction’ that you see on sale in supermarkets and train stations.” If commercial women’s fiction is what we now call chicklit, I couldn’t disagree more. The Forgotten Waltz is the opposite of chicklit in that it brings news, it subverts expectations and does not give easy answers. In chicklit we know the formulas and the character types; here everything is made new. It is complex in its structure (Enright cites inspiration in Ford Madox Ford’s knotty The Good Soldier), though this complexity reduces to a very simple and beautiful effect. It is that each chapter (playfully named after romantic songs) seems to contain the entire affair, past and present, without making the time lines unfollowable. This can only come from an author who truly knows her subject and works the whole book to be steeped in it. Even when we think we know what the final status is – what’s happening in the ‘now’ of the narrative – we come to understand that there is no final status. Near the end Gina’s position seems to shift from consistent upheaval to one of tentative stability, merely threatened with upheaval – in other words, normal family life (if that is not an oxymoron).

The Forgotten Waltz is as much about family as The Gathering was. It highlights the contradictions of family and home life: the traditions and routines, the box it keeps us in which is also offers security, its status as a refuge or place of danger. Everyone in the book is acutely aware, as everyone in Ireland at the time was aware, of the financial and market status of their home. Gina always longed for a house with a sea view: “it didn’t seem a lot to ask – a house that would clean your life every time you looked out of it.” It would be facile to make the economic downturn into a metaphor for the turbulence of Gina’s love life (and one of the features of her story is its distinction between a love affair and love). Instead, the setting informs the characters – Irish people fixated with money and status, irrespective of their own level – and the characters inform the story. Some things, however, are universal. When Seán tells her she has “lovely skin, so soft,” Gina wonders, “Why did men need to persuade themselves? Why did they have to have you, and make you up at the same time?”

Bringing together the universal and the particular is Enright’s speciality, simultaneously bringing revelations of what other people are like while reassuring the reader that their own failings are normal. (Perhaps normal is not the word: usual, then.) “I wanted to sit where I was, and let time pass elsewhere. How do you do that?” asks Gina. How indeed? Meanwhile, one woman I know loved the book partly for the “the best portrayal I’ve ever read of a woman having an affair. I recognise it from the inside out.” By the same token, for me the book told me things I didn’t know. Gina, like Veronica in The Gathering, seems a cool, tough character. But any fictional creation as full and real as she is, must be by definition vulnerable, exposed, undefended because of everything she shares. Like the details of the property boom and bust or the involvement of Seán’s daughter (“the fact that a child was affected…”), Gina’s story is what it is. “Not pretty, but true.”


  1. Well, you’ve managed to make the new Enright – which I had no impulse to even cursorily glance through – sound well worth reading. And the lines culled from the book suggest something very good indeed.

  2. Well like you, Lee, I had no interest in it until a few people recommended it (all on Twitter and weeks ago, so can’t find links). It is a very interesting book indeed, and a very good one. One of those which I feel would merit re-reading almost immediately.

  3. Terrific review, John. I read this one last month and would classify it as the best book I’ve read so far this year. I haven’t been able to articulate my thoughts enough to write a review that would do it justice.

    What I especially liked about it was the fact that Gina had everything — a good job, nice home, stable marriage (even sex with her “safe” husband) — and yet she was prepared to throw it all away… but for what? There’s a telling scene earlier on in the book when they’re having a barbecue and everyone’s running around and there are kids playing etc and Gina sits there and realises this kind of domesticity and suburban life is not for her, but is that what prompts her to embark on an affair? I’m not sure.

  4. Chick lit is an odd term and I think tends to apply to generic/formulaic genre fiction, some of which is extremely good.

    By commercial women’s fiction I (sort of) mean the less pastel-y, less forumlaic fiction that is aimed directly at a female reader (roughly 30+). I get sent a fair bit of it to review and read lots when I was at Waterstone’s.

    This Enright (or what I read of it, got 50 pages in and stopped through boredom) was very close to the latter, although not actually as good in my opinion (clearly, seeing as I gave up on it). And I am therefore intrigued as to what makes her books ‘literary’ and the others ‘commercial’. Is it just that the broadsheets review one and not the other? The cover? The intent of the publisher?

    And if reviewers got stuck in to some of the more ‘commercial’ stuff would they enjoy it as much as the Enright?

    And I am not talking about Jackie Collins and Sophie Kinsella here, although I am always amused by the space Jilly Cooper gets in the broadsheets, she seems to be the acceptable face of bonkbusters (is it a class thing? she’s posh).

    A lot of chick lit readers will happily read Maggie O’Farrell (is she literary?). Has Margaret Forster been on any prize lists? Parts of the Enright reminded me of Mary Wesley. Then there are books like The Slap or The Help that have a largely female audience.

    I guess I just think that the lines between genres (self imposed or imposed from on high) can be blurred and when reading some of this book it felt far more one thing than the other to me.

    1. I think ‘chick-lit’ is simply for a very specific demographic, with certain non-incidental musts (satisfying resolution, winsome, breezy, ‘funny’ prose, short sentences, one-dimensional, zilch melancholia, ciphers other than a likeable central character, promotional sachet of Factor 20). Do Enright’s books set out to satisfy a demographic, other than ‘literary readers’? Elizabeth Gilbert – hardly a bad writer in particular – wrote Eat, Pray, Love, which is shameless chick-lit, an attempt at broad, saccharine appeal. And yet has written well-reviewed ‘literary’ stuff.

      Not having read much of the stuff, I daresay plenty of it is ‘very good’. But would an incredibly skilled one-legged tap-dancer win anything?

  5. All interesting questions, Scott, and thank you for providing me with a hook to hang part of my review on. Of course in making my points above, I do so without having read much (if any) chicklit or commercial women’s fiction (do examples or names spring to mind?). But at the same time, I haven’t used words like ‘literary’ to describe Enright. I just think it’s a very good book, and not just (probably) unlike commercial women’s fiction, but unlike anything I’ve read recently. One obvious thing that makes it seem less commercial to me is the complex time frames which I touched on in my review. On the sentence level, of course, Enright is very good, but it’s possible to produce lots of nice sentences and end up with a book that is unreadable (as she did with The Pleasure of Eliza Lynch), so there is much more to the ‘literariness’ (if we must use that word) than that.

  6. This is a great review. I haven’t read this book, but will certainly put it on my list. I have a really problem with “chick lit”. As you mentioned, it’s very pastel, and I can’t bear the stereotypical characters, I always end up wanting to give them a good shake and telling them to pull themselves together. This sounds a mile away from those sorts of books.


  7. I always respect Scott’s judgement but am also more intrigued after this review. I found The Gathering unreadable, but (being in the middle of writing about the effects of the English recession on a marriage) like what you’ve quoted and pointed up. It doesn’t sound like chick lit. People start affairs for all kinds of reasons, and boredom with the quotidian as “good” as reason as any. Ultimately, doesn’t it depend on the quality of the prose?

  8. I experienced a very similar reaction to yours with this book — at page 50 I thought I was reading “commercial” women’s fiction (my current preferred term is “a book-club book” but I’m looking for a better one), but from then on it became an engrossing read. I know people like Gina and Sean who made some personal bad choices that became even worse when 2008 came along (and I am sure it was worse in Ireland than where I live). Enright sketches their predicament with both detail and compassion.

    I read this novel immediately after Tessa Hadley’s The London Train and in those early pages it felt like part three of Hadley’s novel — so I would put Hadley forward as one example of commercial women’s fiction. Enright’s novel also reminded me of The Slap on occasion, but I wouldn’t put it in the same bag — too much crude male sex for the genre. I also think last year’s Booker jury had leanings towards the fiction that we can’t find a term for — Helen Dunmore, Rose Tremain and Lisa Moore would all fit from my perspective.

  9. Re kimbofo’s comment, yes there is a rejection by Gina early on of domesticity (and, it seems to me, of motherhood in particular), which is why the later parts of the book are particularly interesting.

    Just to be strictly strict, Kevin, I didn’t feel I was reading commercial women’s fiction at any point along the way! In relation to how bad things have been in Ireland, do click on the link, buried in my review, to Ian Jack’s review of Fintan O’Toole’s Ship of Fools, which I think has become acknowledged as the first essential work on the Irish financial crisis. (I have it but haven’t read it.)

    Thanks for your comments too, Helenfe and Amanda. Incidentally, Amanda, I read just today Helen Simpson’s story ‘Night Thoughts’ in the new Granta which you recommended recently, and enjoyed it very much. Thanks for the tip-off!

  10. I read this a couple of months ago for BBC Radio Four’s arts review programme, chaired by Tom Sutcliffe who was a Booker judge last year. Both of us thought it was an exceptional book, playing with and parodying romantic women’s fiction to devastating effect. My book of the year, so far.

  11. Playing devil’s advocate here, but why have I never seen any debate about “commercial men’s fiction” on any blogs/forums/news sites?? Or does it simply not exist?

  12. I’m in the position of both hating that patronising term `chick lit’ and being repelled by the books that are marketed under that category. There may be some that are well written but those pastel covers and the corny titles are deeply off putting. It also seems to assume that there are certain sorts of books that only women read. I do like some female novelists from the UK/Ireland – Deirdre Madden and Sue Gee for example who both deal sensitively with relationships from the femlae viewpoint but on the whole I find myself choosing male authors almost exclusively mainly because I haven’t liked the recent books of the most touted female writers – Mantel, Kingsolver, Tremain and A S Byatt. On the basis of your review I’m going to try this one by Enright as it sounds interesting and well written.
    Yesterday, buying three books at Foyle’s at St Pancras – one of then being by Rona Jaffe – 50’s chick lit if ever there was – I was served by a man who could have been my son who said. `A good selection there – well done!’ I was feeling mellow so didn’t reply beyond a grateful simper

    1. @ Mary: I had to smile at your encounter with a shop assistant. Once, when I was buying some children’s books. I made a passing reference to Harry Potter. The book seller’s face became dark and rather alarming and he growled “Don’t mention that book in my shop ever again”… Clearly not a fan!

  13. Kimbofo, you are right to raise the point. Similarly, as Jeanette Winterson points out in her story ‘All I Know About Gertrude Stein’ in the latest (all-female) Granta magazine, “there’s no such word as career-man.” Perhaps the distinction remains because ‘commercial men’s fiction’ just means Robert Ludlum or Tom Clancy – though for that matter, I’m still not sure what precisely Scott did mean by ‘commercial women’s fiction’. He is a publisher and former bookseller, of course, who no doubt thinks in industry terms for marketing purposes. We may not like to think of our book choices as circumscribed by genres and categories, but the people who publish them and sell them to us often do.

  14. Am I the only who feels it’s somewhat misleading to have “Winner of the 2007 Man Booker Prize” on the cover of a different novel? If it was “Man Booker Prize Winning Author”… fine. But the use of the word “winner” almost made it sound like it was labeling The Forgotten Waltz as the award-winner, not the unmentioned The Gathering

  15. I saw this on Kevin’s site about a week ago, and knew I wanted to read it. You review just confirms it. Plus The Good Soldier is one of my all-time Top Books.

  16. An interesting review, John, and an intriguing discussion also. It makes me want to read The Last Waltz, but I wonder first: is it her best work, or is the prize winner (The Gathering) the place to start?
    As to “chicklit”, I think it is an unfortunately pejorative term, the synonym for which -Women’s Fiction-is hardly better. Personally, I accept the terms as sometimes useful, but descriptive only of a book’s place in the market, not of its quality or intention. But it will be around as long as there are literary awards for fiction ‘by women’, and for the same reasons. Mostly, I think, these reasons are to do with marketing, with a little ideology thrown in. Some people are offended by it, others embrace it as a matter of identity.
    In a recent conversation with my niece, who had just graduating from University, I asked what kind of literature she liked. She answered “chicklit”, without hesitation, and with a broad smile that seemed to say, “Don’t try it Uncle! You won’t change me.” Soon after I bought her a book as part of her graduation gift: I found it in a section called ‘Women’s Fiction’.
    I am reminded that Graham Greene distinguished his output in two categories – “serious’ novels and ‘entertainments – for much of his career. Then, after twenty years and more, he gave up this distinction. (I tried to address this genre-distinction in my article on John Banville and Literary Fiction.) It sounds like this book (The Forgotten Waltz), as well as your review, will each do their part to give the lie to this pseudo-category. And thanks for that!

  17. Really interesting review thanks John. I have to say this book really hadn’t picked up my interest at all until I saw your thoughts. I tried ‘The Gathering’ after it won the Man Booker, it was one of those ‘oh I suppose as its won a prize I really should’ purchasing moments, and was so bored with it I gave up. Its interesting to see with this novel she has won you over so much more.

    I find the comments about ‘commercial womens fiction’ and ‘book club books’ interesting. Where do the boundaries of these lie, are the definitions not rather personal to the individual? Thats not a critique, its a subject I find fascinating.

    Now, and I debate admitting to this or not, is it wrong that after having heard Enright all over the podcasts at the moment I want to read her because she sounds rather lovely? I know it shouldnt matter… yet it does and has piqued my interest that little bit more.

    I am wondering if I read this sooner rather than later, or maybe I wait and see if it gets the Booker longlisting mention I am already imagining it will?

  18. Thanks for the comments everyone. Simon, I saw Enright at an appearance a few days after she won the Booker and she came across as very funny and warm and, yes, lovely. So I think yours is probably a common reaction. She is certainly more ‘likeable’ than her books are, if that makes sense. And although The Forgotten Waltz is, I think, a more welcoming book than The Gathering, it’s still not to be confused with a straightforward read. It’s still something of a challenge, but not an offputting one which is what The Gathering risked being.

    Biblibio, I see what you mean, but I don’t think the approach is entirely reprehensible. It does say ‘Booker Prize 2007’ and anyone seeing the book will realise that this is a new hardback, so it can’t relate to this book – plus, it’s clearly associated with the author’s name rather than the book.

  19. I tend to think commercial men’s fiction is precisely stuff like Tom Clancy and Robert Ludlum. Thrillers are marketed as selectively to men as many other books are to women.

    Interestingly in Waterstones the other day I noticed that Colm Toibin’s The Heather Blazing had a new cover making it look indistinguishable from the mass of commercial women’s fiction. Probably because of Brooklyn. That’s the thing, in many ways commercial women’s fiction is packaging rather than content.

    It does feel to me, unscientifically, as if books are being marketed much more along gender specific lines than was once the case. Given I’d rather read Toibin than Clancy I’m not sure I’m entirely overjoyed about that.

    Sorry not to say much about the Enwright. I read Kevin’s review and the prose just didn’t speak to me going on the quotes. Still, I do note the unstinting praise from multiple sources I respect.

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