In Esther Freud’s new novel, Love Falls, 17-year-old Lara dreams of Prince Charles “and his black Jamaican girlfriend searching for his trousers in her room. They giggled and flirted and made lustful, lascivious comments . . . and [Lara] had to hide under the covers for fear they would fall on to her bed.” Now what would Freud’s great-grandfather Sigmund have made of that?
Esther Freud is the daughter of painter Lucian Freud (and the sister of fashion designer Bella, grandchild of architect Ernest, niece of politician Clement, and grandniece of child psychologist Anna—goodness, what a family!). Unlike the illustrious Sigmund, this younger Freud doesn’t much care for the interpretation of dreams, nor for the vagaries of the unconscious. (The detailing of Lara’s dream is a rare exception.) A gentle materialist, Freud situates herself in her characters’ conscious minds—what they see, taste, and touch, what they actively desire. Unconscious yearnings don’t much interest her.
In her five previous novels, Freud has drawn on bits of her own life. “All my work is autobiographical in some way,” she has said in interviews. Her best-known book, Hideous Kinky, details the childhood years spent living in Morocco with her sister and hippie mother. The other books aren’t so explicitly personal, but they often feature renowned and distant fathers, sweetly flighty mothers, daughters who dream of a more stable home life and often train as actresses. (Before she took up writing, Freud enjoyed a successful career in the theater.) Set in 1981, when Freud herself was 17, Love Falls tramps similar ground. Lara’s father, a famous émigré historian, invites her to spend several weeks with him in Italy. Lara hardly knows her father, but she agrees, occasioning “spirals of alarm, of dread, of delirious excitement.” She packs a case full of cheap clothes and A-level books, bids farewell to her mother in Finsbury Park, and joins her father on the train to Siena.
Perhaps owing to family inheritance, actor training, or her particular sensitivity, Freud has a remarkable ability to insert herself into her characters’ heads, especially those of girls. Anna and Sigmund ought to be pleased—Freud’s grasp of adolescent psychology is perfect. Witness Lara in the train bathroom, staring into a mirror and discovering a pimple. “She brushed her hair, arranging it so that a strand fell over the spot, and then, dissatisfied, she fluffed it up so that it didn’t fall so flatly on her head. Don’t look, she told herself, still looking, knowing her attempts were hopeless, and despair settling like a black umbrella collapsing, she arranged her features into one of optimism, and forced herself away.”
Happily, summer in Italy will have a favorable effect on nearly anyone’s mood and complexion. The sultry landscape affords Freud an opportunity for sensual detail. She depicts meals, scents, vistas, the feel of the cool swimming-pool waters on sun-parched skin. Freud writes lucidly, disarmingly, almost artlessly—but that artlessness requires considerable craft. Her descriptions are seductive (I loathe pesto, but “thick spaghetti, heaped with basil sauce, creamy and rich with nuts and cheese,” makes me crave it). Yet you wouldn’t confuse
Love Falls with a good food guide or vacation brochure. Freud loves material particulars, but she displays some restraint, relating them simply and suggesting that indulgence comes with a price. Characters often drink too much or overeat or act too ardently, and must endure the consequences.
The waterfall of the title—la cascata dell’amore, or the “Love Falls”—suggests these dangers. “The waterfall was spectacular,” Freud writes. “It fell in a froth of foam, clearing quickly to a shoot of clear green water, tumbling into a pool below. . . . There were people swimming in the lower pool, letting themselves be pushed out by the tumbling water, clinging to the rocks to stop them floating off downstream.”
Lara confines herself to this lower pool, but forgets to hold on once and is nearly swept away (a neat analogue for her experiences of love and sex in the novel). Her father leaps from the upper pool, in a foolish bid to impress a woman, and injures himself.
Essentially, and perhaps unusually for an artist, Freud urges what the Greeks called sophrosyne, a sweet and reasoned moderation. Lara attempts to learn this practice, with some success. As the novel progresses, she sunburns herself less frequently, finds her head aswim with wine a bit less often. If she does lavish her affections on Kip, a rather reckless young man, she achieves a certain harmony in the novel’s central (and, it should be said, chaste) relationship: that between father and daughter. There’s no Electra complex and certainly no penis envy—when Lara sees Michelangelo’s David, she wonders why his genitals are so small—but Freud offers a lovely family romance.