'The Rocks' is a layered story of dark secrets on a sunny island

Peter Nichols takes us to the small Spanish village of Cala Marsopa, where he untangles a 60-year old love story.

The Rocks By Peter Nichols Penguin Publishing Group 432 pp.

It’s hard to imagine a less happy reunion than the one that kicks off The Rocks. Gerald Franklin and Lulu Davenport have successfully avoided each other for 50 years – despite living in the same town on an island.

“They both had remained in the small town of Cala Marsopa after their divorce in 1949, yet by evolving antipodal routines they had managed to avoid each other almost entirely for half a century,” Peter Nichols writes in his novel, “The Rocks.” The two were married for only a few weeks, and no one – not even their children – knows what went wrong on their honeymoon voyage aboard Gerald’s beloved boat, The Nereid. And when the two wind up dead after their first chance meeting in decades, it looks as though their secret has drowned with them off the rocks of Mallorca.

Nichols, author of the nonfiction book “A Voyage for Madmen” and the memoir “Sea Change,” sets up a difficult challenge: Not only does he fling two of his main characters into the Mediterranean in the first chapter, he tells his story in reverse, going backward from 2005 to the ill-fated journey aboard the Nereid. Fortunately, Nichols keeps a firm hand on the tiller – even though he starts at the end, “The Rocks” maintains a strong forward (backward?) momentum throughout.

As Gerald’s and Lulu’s story unfolds, so does that of their children by their second marriages: Aegina Rutledge, who grows up to be an artist and entrepreneur; and Luc Franklin, a modestly successful screenwriter. At the outset, Aegina and Luc are also estranged, though Nichols offers them a glimmer of hope. Along the way, secrets are revealed – including just what is on the never-developed film Gerald gave to Lulu long ago – as the history of a family and a lost love unspools backward. 

“Don't we want the audience to wonder what's going on?" Luc asks a producer who is trying to turn Luc’s thoughtful, noir screenplay into a car-chase thriller starring Roy Scheider. "To not know?”

Nichols manages the suspense remarkably well. Readers also can bask vicariously in the gorgeous setting and the descriptions of delicious food, which makes even an unhappy Mediterranean sojourn a picturesque one. Gerald, author of what his publisher calls a “small, understated masterpiece of vernacular history and travel,” spent years sailing around Homer’s “fish-infested sea” searching for Odysseus’s path before becoming “marooned” on the Spanish island of Mallorca after he lost his yacht. He named his book “The Way to Ithaka,” after a poem by the Greek poet C.P. Cavafy.

“I like his suggestion that it wasn’t reaching Ithaca that mattered so much, as what happened to one along the way,” he tells an audience at the British Museum. The novel very much takes that as its guiding spirit, with the journey counting for more than the destination. Gerald, with his love of records and books and his devotion to his olive, lemon, and almond trees, remains good company throughout his life. 

Lulu, however, is less a fully realized character and more an ageless Siren – and she ultimately is the biggest problem with “The Rocks.” “In her ninth decade, Lulu Davenport still had the slim, supple body of a much younger woman,” Nichols writes. “She walked everywhere, she gardened, and she ran Villa Los Roques — ‘The Rocks,’ as everyone called her little seaside hotel at the eastern end of the island of Mallorca — and charmed her guests as she had for more than 50 years.” Near the end of her life Lulu commits an act so foul that a reader finds her difficult to bear – let alone regard her as the enchanting hostess her guests do. (Those guests have impulses and secrets of their own – “The Rocks” is darker than its sunny locale might suggest.) 

Her son is a little more wary of his mother. “Her job as a mother, which she took seriously, had always been to goad him with his complacent wallowing in mediocrity,” Luc thinks. With not one but two ill-fated voyages in “The Rocks,” readers won’t question Lulu’s decision to resolutely avoid boats. “People are always getting into trouble on boats,” Luc tells guests aboard a yacht. Gerald, however, maintains his love of the sea. His decision to remain in Mallorca, rather than heading to Greece or England after his marriage foundered and the Nereid sank remains a quixotic one to his daughter and friends.

Cavafy's poem “hopes the voyage is a long one,” offering the wish that the traveler will be old before he reaches the island. “Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey/ Without her you would not have set out.” 

"Mostly a wretched, storm-tossed misery, full of wrong turns and monsters," Gerald thinks. But it’s a marvelous journey, nonetheless.

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