Emily Stuart is a writer patching her various writing jobs together to make a living in London. Evan Gordonston is her childhood friend whose family ended up living in the States. When Evan moves back to London, a friend of Emily’s suggests lodging for Evan, he meets his new landlady. And – BANG!
Evan ask Emily to help him document his life-changing meeting with Caroline Beresford. Emily undertakes the task of documenting his unstated and unrequited love, but his is not the only case of ‘courtly love’. We recognise in Emily’s writing of Evan’s enrapture, his deteriorating physical state, his screwing up at work and his diet of increasingly sophisticated G&Ts, the same progression in Emily herself.
Caroline’s Bikini is a piece of metafiction, with Emily describing to us the processes and frustrations of writing the novel we are reading. Emily/Gunn provides us with plenty of footnotes pointing us to the copious end notes – or not, as we please. The flow of the writing is engrossing, very sad and very funny, and the footnotes deteriorate along with Emily’s judgement as the seasons pass, as the pubs get swankier, as the gin gets more expensive and more chichi, as the pair get more bogged down in describing something about which Emily is in complete denial.
And not only are the reader’s concerns with Emily and Evan – there’s Caroline, the ‘ideal’ woman: good fun, beautiful, hosting successful parties, whisking up meals for her three sons – but also depressed, medicating and not often seen without a glass of wine in her hand. And David Beresford – having walked away from his job to follow his passion of the classics he is leaving his family adrift in the process. And there are Emily’s friends and colleagues, distantly trying to re-engage with her.
Caroline’s Bikini builds a fair amount of tension, given that not much happens apart from a lot of gin being drunk. As we slowly move towards the resolution, prefigured in the beginning and achingly drawn out at the end, the reader has no idea whether they are reading a tragedy or a comedy. Whatever the outcome (read Caroline’s Bikini to find out which it is), the novel is an excellent depiction of when personal concerns take over your life and stop you seeing, or taking part in, the world around you. Wonderful!