Reunion by Andrea Goldsmith*
Published by HarperCollins 2009
(Review first published March, 2010)
Four friends – Ava, Jack, Helen and Connie, their bonds formed in their early, idealistic years at university – are reunited after 20 years. Ava is a bestselling novelist, Helen a world renowned molecular biologist, Conrad – 'Connie' – is a philosopher with a popular following in the mould of Alain de Botton and Jack is an expert – albeit an underachieving one – in comparative religions and, a now in demand, authority on Islam. Their careers and intellectual pursuits have taken them to institutions the globe over but with an opportunity to become part of a new all-Australian think tank, NOGA − headed by Ava's barely tolerated husband, Harry – they have all been brought back together in Melbourne, hoping the proximity will be enough for them pick up where they left off.
The reunion itself is merely Goldsmith's starting point for burrowing into each character's life as they are now, what they were 20 years ago and how they might possibly end up tomorrow. The connective tissue of the story is each character's contemplation of their present circumstances in relation to their shared pasts and uncertain futures. Their plaster-cast middle aged temperaments, insecurities and foibles feed into the dynamics of the relationships between them – particularly Jack's resilient love for the married Ava − and is what drives the narrative tension. Personable and flawed, you come to accept and understand these characters as you do your own best friends without their social veneers, but you also know when they're likely to falter on a misplaced hope or an act of self-delusion.
Each character's point of view and their back stories are entered into seamlessly, but there is not enough differentiation in style to lend each of them a completely unique voice. They are all flawlessly educated, knowledgeable and articulate − their thoughts crafted by a very competent novelist, but not a novelist who is willing to compromise the finesse of her writing technique to effect more than subtle change between characters or risk a messy, repetitive paragraph to a stream-of-consciousness of a character on the edge.
Universities provide a natural backdrop for novels that want to grapple with ideas and higher order thinking within learned domains and Reunion is perfectly at home in this setting. Linked to that, older men in academia justifying sexual liaisons with much younger women under their tutelage is almost a staple of well regarded, thinking person's fiction. J.M. Coetzee has used it, as too, Zadie Smith. Goldsmith follows a different tact by allowing just such a relationship to be dissected without the immediacy or intensity of the present tense, or even the recent past. Through selective disclosures from Ava's memory, her relationship with a much older man while she was a teenage undergraduate is filtered through a circumspective, mature-age female lens and avoids being occluded by moral absolutism. The relationship gradually takes more primacy as the novel unfolds and its heartbreaking intimacy lingers long after the last paragraph. To cover her bases, as if perhaps the retrospective romance of Ava's relationship might condone the union and its power imbalance, Goldsmith burdens the character of Connie with a short attention span when it comes to relationships with women and a penchant for much younger ones. Unless you are a man with a similar predilection, then sympathy is too strong a word for what Conrad elicits from the reader as a character, but certainly Goldsmith allows him to be understood and pitied, and not too reviled, particularly as he is eventually met with some due comeuppance.
Reunion is equally a love story and a treatise on love − both the kind that is fossilised in long term friendships and the passionate, consuming kind. Through its characters exploratory, analytic ruminations – who are given to examining the lives of each other as much as their own − it artfully avoids being waylaid into easy sentimental traps, but neither is it dismissive of high passion and emotional extremes − just circumspect and very, very thoughtful. The book fairly teems with ideas to be mulled over and the benefit of writing about smart, high achievers with differing fields of interest is that these ideas − on friendship, memory, nostalgia, romantic love, marriage and fidelity, religion, philosophy, humanity, science, professional ethics and integrity – can be weighed up, drawn out, examined, turned over and evaluated, without steering the narrative off course. It is the discussion and play with personal, moral and ethical dilemmas that paves the way to the book's climax and as a reader you are primed to go there with both your heart and your mind well and truly switched on.
* Since writing this review seven years ago, I am still amazed at how underrated and under appreciated Andrea Goldsmith remains as an Australian writer